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Opinion

Italy has opted to slash the size of parliament by a third, as voters turn on politicians. Bloated Britain should follow suit

Italy will save more than a billion euro over the next 10 years by offloading deadweight from its democratic representatives. Other nations should do the same, especially Britain, where parliamentary reform is long overdue.

So the Italians have decided that, while you cannot have a surfeit of la dolce vita, you can certainly have too much political representation: they’ve decided by referendum to slash by a third the total number of representatives sitting in their Chamber of Deputies and Senate.

In an act of sudden and legally-binding ‘social distancing’ imposed on the powerbrokers in Rome, as per the ballot box, Italy will now have 400 elected members sitting in its lower chamber, down from 630, and just 200 senators sitting in a senate where 315 formerly occupied the benches.

Streamlined democracy has arrived on the peninsula, backed by around 70 percent of the 54 percent of those who turned out to vote.

Many of those cynical politicians, who had at first supported the idea of a referendum, soon regretted that political suicide as momentum built for the idea as the vote approached; they then decried it as an assault on democracy. 

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Too little, too late; they are now woefully out of fashion in a nation obsessed with looking just right.

It’s been clear for years that many of those among the unruly mob of MPs sitting in Italy’s parliament were more concerned with their own power games, financial wellbeing and political prospects than they were with the inconvenience of dealing with voters.

It must be said, this is not a specifically Italian affliction. It’s part of the political pandemic. But in Italy the voters have finally bitten back, showing the extent of the gulf in trust between people and those elected representatives supposed to look out for them.

And while it will certainly save the Italian taxpayer €1bn over 10 years in bloated salaries and the handouts to cronies and pals that accompany politics, whether it will make the system of government more efficient and effective remains to be seen.

You have to wonder if a referendum on a similar question were held elsewhere in Europe, how many other nations would decide that they, too, are burdened with a little too much deadweight democracy.

Germany has a huge Bundestag of 709 members, with an upper chamber Bundesrat of just 69 unelected members. In the two chambers of French parliament, there are 577 in the National Assembly and 348 in the Senate.

Spain has 350 members in its lower house, the Congress of Deputies, and another 266 seats in its Senate and Romania, one of the youngest democracies among EU members, has a Chamber of Deputies comprising 329 representatives and a Senate of 136.

Of course, on top of this mass of elected national politicians, each member of the EU adds its own quota of gravy-trainers to the pile of 705 European MPs sitting in Brussels.

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Elsewhere, in Washington there are 435 members of the House of Representatives and just 100 in the Senate. Brazil’s two houses of the National Congress consist of a total of 513 Federal Deputies and 81 Senators, while India is governed by a 545-member House of the People and a 260-seat Council of State.

While that’s certainly a shedload of representation in any language, all these nations are individually dwarfed by the numbers in the UK, with 650 Members of Parliament and around 800 or so unelected members of the House of Lords occupying the Palace of Westminster and environs. 

The Lords is crammed with bishops, actors, time-wasters, sinecures, cronies, careerists, millionaires, showboaters and the downright doddery – like the cast of Downton Abbey – all sitting thanks to the inheritance of a title or their being rewarded for public service by the government. Not one person voted for them in an election.

Their numbers rise several times a year as honours lists and ad hoc cynical political appointments are handed out to keep people sweet, and they also fall as some peers shuffle off this mortal coil.

By any stretch the UK is certainly over-governed at a national level. But asking these turkeys to vote for Christmas is no easy thing, as the latest efforts in Parliament have proven.

Plans for electoral redistribution to change constituency boundaries, that would have seen 50 of the 650 lower house seats disappear, were abandoned, unsurprisingly, because that would have seen some MPs finding themselves suddenly representing an electorate of none.

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While the election campaign promise to reform the two chambers is the sort of perennial that sounds good to UK voters, nothing ever comes of it because of the self-serving nature of those taking part in implementing any such discussion.

For serious reform to have any chance in the UK, it would take a clear direction from the people, in the form of an Italian-style referendum to force the issue. Politicians are so damned selfish and addicted to the pheromones of power generated by success at the polls that they would fight any moves to reduce their numbers, despite political affiliations.

And while self-interest, cronyism and addiction to power is universal and makes reform without real commitment impossible, Rome has shown that consensus for change can be built, and the method used to achieve that should encourage other nations looking to improve the accountability and effectiveness of their own democracies.

The Italian result has also exposed the outrageous size of Britain’s parliament in relation to its population, as compared to the rest of Europe and beyond.

It should put the very existence of the House of Lords, with its 800 unelected, taxpayer-funded peers, under increased scrutiny, so that real reform has a chance of success here as well.

We need someone to step up for this and actually mean it. BoJo? Keir Starmer? Nigel Farage? All options should be given serious consideration, because it’s time something was done to cut the political class down to size. For good.

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