James Mitchell: This is no time to be resting on political laurels

AS OF today, Westminster can justly claim Holyrood's title as the parliament of "new politics". Select-committee chairs – even the language has been updated, gone are chairmen – will be elected in secret ballots by MPs rather than selected by party whips.

This marks an important rebalancing of the relationship between government and parliament and between front and backbenchers.

There has been much loose talk of "new politics" since the formation of the coalition in London. But this single action has the potential to build on changes brought about after Norman St John-Stevas, as leader of the House of Commons, introduced the select-committee system in 1979.

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This new reform of the committee system also follows a cross-party report. In July last year, a select committee under Labour MP Tony Wright was established in response to the crisis in public confidence in the Commons following revelations of abuse of the expenses system.

Its recommendations might sound banal but have the potential to transform parliamentary democracy especially in the context of coalition government and the prospect that single-party majority governments at Westminster in future may become, as here in Scotland, unlikely. It steals a march on Holyrood after the Scottish Parliament had been, in its first decade, the reform parliament in the UK.

The Wright Report proposed that chairs of departmental and similar committees should be directly elected by secret ballot using the alternative vote. Chairs would be allocated, as before, on the basis of party support in the Commons. Candidates for chairs require a minimum level of support from within their own party and are free to show they have the support of other MPs.

Twelve Conservative committee chairs will be elected today as will ten Labour chairs and two Liberal Democrats. Nominations for the positions are required from 15 MPs or ten per cent of their party, whichever is lower. The electoral system will be an interesting use of the alternative vote, the system to be the subject of a referendum for use in elections to the Commons in the future.

One of the attractions of devolved government is that it allows for experimentation and competition between different devolved administrations and different levels of government. At its establishment, the Scottish Parliament was keen to promote "new politics". Essentially, this new politics was defined in contradistinction to old-style Westminster politics. All too often, Holyrood railed against a caricature of old-style Westminster politics. New politics was, nonetheless, a useful myth around which Holyrood reformers could rally.

There were significant differences between the two parliaments in the first decade of devolution. As presiding officer, David Steel articulated these powerfully in a speech in Oxford in 2001 when he identified his "dozen differences of devolution". But there has subsequently been a creeping complacency and superiority amongst elements of the Scottish establishment. Westminster has embarked on a process of catch-up since then. New politics in Scotland sometimes looks more like an event than a process from this perspective, something achieved in devolution's foundation rather than ongoing.

There was a detectable Scottish schadenfreude in some observations that Holyrood's more transparent expenses system did not give rise to the kinds of outrages seen in the last Westminster parliament. Duck islands and elusive shelving would have been highly unlikely under Holyrood's more rigorous procedures. Maybe so, but that is hardly setting the bar high.

One outcome of the crisis at Westminster has been a root and branch review of its operations and an opportunity for reformers to strike. The election of a new government, consisting of one party that had been out of power for 13 years and another for almost 90 years, has helped. Westminster is now embarking on reforms that were nigh unimaginable a few years ago.

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It is now Holyrood's turn to play catch-up. Legacy papers have become part of Holyrood's modus operandi. The convenors group has been working away recently on the legacy of committees and recommendations they want to pass on to the new parliament to be elected next May. This offers Holyrood an opportunity to review its operations and consider whether Wright-style reforms might be welcome here in Scotland.

As well as secret ballots to elect chairs, Holyrood might consider other Westminster innovations designed to enhance the status of committees. In 2003, it was agreed that certain committee chairs in the Commons should receive an additional salary. This has since been extended to other chairs. At a time of fiscal restraint, it might seem perverse to defend or, worse, propose extending this practice. But a financial incentive usually works and contributes to the creation of an alternative to the ministerial career path. The cost is small in contributing to the creative tension in the relationship between parliament and government. A good chair ought to contribute to highlighting profligate bureaucracy and saving money.

This may not be the opportune moment, in the midst of a fiscal crisis and following the abuse of the expenses system at Westminster, to introduce such allowances in Holyrood. But at the very least, the idea ought to be considered as something that might be introduced at some point in the future. It should be stressed that this idea was far from embraced when it was put to convenors of Holyrood committees at the end of last year.

Woodrow Wilson famously remarked that "Congress in session is Congress on public exhibition whilst Congress in its committee rooms is Congress at work". That is also true of both Westminster and Holyrood. There is more than enough exhibitionism at Question Time. Holyrood's committees have heavy enough workloads to cope with and few enough MSPs to do the job. The parliament's founders were right to identify strong committees as a central part of new politics. MSPs need now to take this further if Holyrood is to regain its reputation as the UK's reform parliament.