Three terms and they’re out?

Like a blogging version of Johnny, the burd occasionally likes to arrive late.  Fortunately, ruminating over the implications of Wendy Alexander’s sudden departure from the Scottish political scene resulted in some interesting conclusions.  Better late than never after all…

Wendy standing down as an MSP marks a watershed.  Nearly all of the Class of 99 who made up Scotland’s first Cabinet have now left the stage:  only Sarah Boyack and Tom McCabe remain. 

The burd would contend that such a clearance is healthy, but while this election will result in considerable churn across the parties, there are far too many candidates on the verge of returning for a fourth term.  Consequently, all the political groups at Holyrood, bar the Greens, will be carrying dead wood, and more of it. 

Any number of folk who engage regularly with the Parliament can pick out those MSPs who wear an invisibility cloak for much of the Parliamentary session.  Their overall contribution over the lifetime of their service could be measured on the fingers of one hand.  As with Westminster, many have become fine practitioners of the art of looking and being busy without actually achieving very much at all.  And in order to ensure their return, these MSPs, more than any others, have become experts at the art of internal politics, of winning and wooing their own in order to secure their candidacies.

Moreover, there comes a point when nearly all politicians begin to doubt if life and work beyond their tenure is possible, and many – as we have again, seen often at Westminster – begin to forget the reason why they stood in the first place.  Getting back becomes much more of a priority than getting on:  it is after all a cosy sinecure with decent pay and perks.

It can be argued that the SNP moving from Opposition to Government was the political equivalent of a change being as good as a rest (and likewise for Labour moving in the other direction).  Many of the Government’s Ministers were indeed, third term politicians and no one could accuse them of being dead wood nor of relishing the chance to get on. 

But some have effectively grown up in the Parliament:  few of the SNP Government Ministers had more than a few years of life and work outwith its confines.  With many still only in their early forties, they have plenty of parliamentary years in them yet.  Labour has some who also fall into this category.  Do they all propose to aim for long service awards of twenty years and more?

It is right to question the efficacy and indeed, the wisdom of allowing any of our MSPs to continue beyond 12 years in office.  The burd would contend – and knows that others agree – that it’s time for the application of a three strikes and you’re out rule (albeit with the proviso that an MSP can always return after a period spent in the wilderness).

For, it cannot be good for them, their respective parties and most importantly of all, the wellbeing of our country and our nascent democracy for a generation of politicians to effectively grow up and grow old in Holyrood.  Life in the political bubble is very different from the ordinary, humdrum of people’s lives outside.  It is too easy to become divorced from that reality, to become far too focussed on winning the battle of the day and increasingly myopic in terms of vision and horizon.  As with any other job, politics can become a wearily familiar comfort zone, a treadmill that you set at jogging pace and justify – to yourself and others – why you ought not to crank up the tempo. 

And if we know that by carrying so much heavy cargo in its hold and far too many professional ratings jostling for position and status at its helm, Holyrood, as it sets sail on its fourth voyage, risks listing, or worse becoming a leaky old tub, why is no one prepared to do something about it?  Especially when Scotland might well suffer as a result.

13 thoughts on “Three terms and they’re out?

  1. This is Malc’s comment:

    I’m open-minded on the issue, but I’m not convinced of the arguments for term limits at all. For me democracy entails allowing the electorate a FREE choice on who they get to elect. Sure, a better way to do it would be to have “none of the above” or “write-in name here” slots on ballot papers, but that’s an addition I’d make – and even that would be symbolic.

    By setting limits, we’d be effectively saying that the electorate itself isn’t smart enough to decide that X or Y is too old or has served for too long, we’d be making an arbitrary limit on the ability of one person to serve their constituents. Why 3 terms? Why not 2? Or 4? Or just one?

    Parties select candidates for subsequent elections on the basis that the people have elected them once already (so, from 1999 on, for example Lab saw the public liked Jack McConnell in Motherwell & Wishaw, and asked in 2003 if they wanted him again, or if they’d prefer someone else from a different party. The same in 2007. And it would be the same again in 2011 if he hadn’t decided himself to go to London. So yes, while in the first instance parties decide who goes forward in elections the first time, they base that on the view of the public in subsequent elections (of course with some exceptions here).

    And what is a party anyway? We’re talking as though they are removed from democracy, but they are just members of the electorate who feel strongly about something and want to be involved in politics more acutely. They are the heart of a democracy. Okay, perhaps that’s overstating my case, but can you imagine 129 independents running Holyrood? Would that work?

    Look, I’m against career politicians as much as you are (stand up at the back Jim Murphy…) but I don’t think term limits is the way to do it. Let’s look at better ways to get them involved in parliamentary business – more use of members debates/ motions/ legislation initiated by individual members… that kind of thing.

  2. You weren’t getting a “doing”. We were just disagreeing – though if it looked like we were ganging up, apologies. Anyway, twitter broke, and I can’t make a case in 140 words so I emailed you instead. Feel free to print it if you like.

    • I jest. It was a nice “doing” or disagreement! Debate is good!! And not at all – if I thought you were ganging up I’d say so. Away to find your email and will post it.

  3. Couldn’t agree more, the possibility of any Parliament but especially such a new one becoming a ‘job for life’ should fill us all with horror.

    There are numerous problems with ‘job for life’ politicians but the main one I see is that it makes it much less likely that we will have independent thinkers.

    If someone reaches, say, 40 and has never done another job the prospect of them moving into other work must scare them. As such they are less likely to defy the party machine, which creates the disillusionment we already see.

    However if they knew they would have to find alternative work at some stage it would possibly encourage them to develop more of an outside career first before going in, or only do it for a shorter period before moving on.

    The net result of this is, ideally, a more diverse Parliament with people who have actually worked rather than just following the student-researcher-politician path.

    The one issue I may disagree on is whether or not three terms is the correct amount, I’m possibly more drawn to four because of the time needed to get into how the parliament works, etc.

    Of course there will obviously be problems with any system, just as now. The balance then has to be, would losing the odd good politician be a price worth paying if it resulted in the scenario envisaged above?

    • Thank goodness Ideas of Civilisation – I’m getting a doing on Twitter about this from the Better Nation boys in particular!

      Was beginning to think that I was seeing things through a concave lens but no, you reassure me that there is merit in at least debating such ideas for renewal.

      The other point that is coming up is that the election is where we can dump “dead wood” but that allows the parties to control who we get to vote for. And I am increasingly concerned that the operation and organisation of OUR democracy and OUR parliament is determined by the parties and current political occupants – huge conflict of interest.

      The Parliament is Scotland’s and her people’s – they are only tenants. Yet it is treated as theirs, not ours and this worries me.

      Incidentally, these are the kind of debates the Electoral Commission surely should be promoting…

  4. Rather like my friend Robespierre’s motion at the end of the French National Constituent Assembly of 1789, which passed a self denying ordinance, holding that its membership could not hold seats in the subsequent Legislative Assembly of 1791…

  5. While acknowledging the problem you describe, I can’t help but feel that any such measure would be an example of asking the condition to do the electorate’s job. There can be many benefits of having hugely experienced members in the chamber, provided they are productive. Ultimately it is the public’s responsibility to scrutinise voting and attendance records, find out how many questions their MSP has submitted, or for that matter what life experience a candidate has. That so few people do this is the fault of the parties and the media, not the Parliament.

    • Perhaps. But I know of very good politicians who get sucked in by the machine and especially once they hit third terms are so in with the bricks they really have forgotten why they are there. Not just at parliament level, councillor too.

      A three terms and you’re out might be a bit of a sledgehammer but we are now starting to see some structural faults with the Parliamentary set up, and few others are positing suggestions for renewal. If we don’t want our Parliament to go the way of Westminster, we might want or need to be thinking radically about how to keep it on its toes.

  6. Greens in a coalition James? A formal one, I don’t see it, I like pat but is he popular enough to carry double figure seats and enter into a coalition? And with whom, be wrong for any leftish person to team up with the right wing reactionaries of labour, and he’s notthat keen on the SNP either these days

    • No I don’t see the Greens in a formal coalition either…. unless they change their tune considerably post election. Stranger things have happened!

  7. Scenario: great result for the Greens, Patrick Harvie as DFM. Then he has to stand down from Parliament at the next election no matter what the people want? Properly undemocratic!

    • But the people don’t necessarily get what they want – they get what the parties are prepared to give them. Which is my point about unproductive MSPs focusing their efforts on internal politics and claiming their place for re-election rather than getting on with the job.

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