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Essay: Seizing the moment

It would be wise not to assume that there is a genuine 'golden opportunity' for any kind of major breakthrough on constitutional reform, writes Stuart Weir. But the door is half open to serious reform of parliament and we should not allow the chance to escape

August 23, 2009
13 min read

We are said to have a ‘golden opportunity’ at last to reform democracy in this country. There does seem to be a growing demand for reforms to halt the erosion of civil liberties in the UK and to roll back the authoritarian state, as the Convention on Modern Liberty held earlier this year suggested; and there is profound popular dissatisfaction with politicians and parliament that was waiting for a spark to set it off, as the expenses scandal has proved to be.

Poll figures suggest that some three quarters of the population want reforms.

But of what, and for what, exactly? While the anger over MPs’ expenses may prove a catalyst for meaningful reform of parliament, it may well also be an expression of an ugly anti-politics phenomenon. As such, it would require more wide-ranging reforms from the political class to satisfy what increasingly looks like a deep-seated anger that will not easily be placated by minor adjustments.

For now, though, it would be wise not to assume that there is a genuine golden opportunity for any kind of major breakthrough, and especially not on the two huge and intertwined defects at the heart of our obsolete democracy: an electoral system that is utterly unrepresentative and usually gives the biggest party an unearned working majority in the House of Commons; and an overweeningly powerful executive that the House of Commons in turn cannot hold to account. The configuration of politics is such that a Conservative victory is likely at a general election next year; and David Cameron has already made it abundantly clear that electoral reform is not on his agenda any more than he is about to give away executive power.

Major surges

There are currently two major surges going on. First, there is a centre-left campaign being led by the Electoral Reform Society and Compass to press voting reform on the government, with a demand for a referendum at the next general election. While campaigning for reform – and specifically for proportional representation – is valuable in itself and hopefully will pay off in the long run, in the short term it faces almost insuperable odds.

The other is the Real Change initiative, attempting to take forward the spirit and energy of the Convention on Modern Liberty, about which I wrote in my last Red Pepper column (Apr/May 2009), with an ‘open politics network’. The intention is to inspire people at large to meet, self-organise and take reforms to parliamentary candidates standing at the general election, with some kind of report-back mechanism in place after a year or so of the next parliament. The big point that Anthony Barnett, Helena Kennedy and the other organisers (I will be part of this initiative) make is that this is a unique moment. Barnett says: ‘Previous campaigns about the lamentable way we are governed were wake-up calls. Now people are awake but don’t know what to do.’

What surprises me is that there is apparently no left initiative specifically for reform of parliament (though the Real Change process may produce demands for parliamentary change). Yet here the door is open, or half open, to changes that may well command popular support. Let me tick off the openings that exist at national and parliamentary level through which well-led campaigns from below, building upon what popular demand exists, may be able to succeed:

Gordon Brown is committed to parliamentary reforms as part of his political ‘rescue’ act during the next session. It is always dodgy saying that he will actually do something, but the chances must be that he will since reform has long been a part of his agenda for government

Tony Wright MP is to chair an all-party committee on parliamentary reforms. Wright, chair of the public administration select committee (PASC), has been probably the most effective parliamentarian of the Labour years. He is both committed and knowledgeable when it comes to democratic and parliamentary reform. It was his committee, for example, that drew up the unanswerable indictment of royal prerogative powers – one of the mainstays of executive dominance – that has led the government to tentative reform. All reformers should focus on strengthening the work of this new committee, though of course it may not happen or may prove powerless. But it gives us an opportunity.

A draft constitutional renewal bill is already in existence and will be brought forward in the next session. It avowedly intends to create a more equal balance of power between the executive and parliament, but falls far short of this. For example, it recognises the case for giving parliament and the public the final say on going to war, but finally still leaves too much discretion with the executive.

Yet the structures are there for more thoroughgoing reform, especially if Wright’s committee comes up with the goods. And as the Democratic Audit pamphlet Beating the Retreat showed, there is a prospect of cross-party support for going further. Brown is presumably following a two-part strategy. First, alongside the ‘Building Britain’s Future’ attempt to regain Labour’s working class constituency, he is seeking to restore public faith in his leadership by demonstrating his ability to clean up and reform parliament in ways that add weight to its role.

But he has also to regain the diminishing support of the centre-left and liberal intelligentsia. To do so he will have to retreat on the inroads his and Blair’s administrations have made on civil liberties and begin to demolish the database state. His reform plans will have to have genuine substance to work – for there is an informed public here who know when they are being cheated, and the general public are not likely to be satisfied with a superficial response.

People may be too deep in revulsion about the shabby expenses scams to be moved by proposals for wider parliamentary reform, but the political class is sufficiently alarmed about the state of opinion to wish to placate the public.

Finally, Cameron will give nothing away if he can get away with it. He has been very lucky that he and his party have escaped almost unscathed from the expenses scandal, even though he has personally been very greedy in his own demands upon the public purse, subsidising his ownership of a splendid country residence. Of course, his footwork has been near immaculate. He has given just one opening on parliamentary reform – by venturing that he would consider installing fixed-term parliaments, with the clever caveat that this near universal democratic practice is hedged about with problems. He needs to be pushed on this and on reform proposals.

In other words, there are real prospects for advance on parliamentary reform that ‘we’ – democrats, socialists, greens and so on – should not allow to escape. But what should be ‘our’ agenda?

Reform agendas

There are potentially three or four agendas in the public arena. The first is that of the ‘modernisers’ who would drastically reduce the size of the House of Commons. Bad idea. Then there is John Bercow. A possibly lively irrelevance, though if he can secure the House’s control of its agenda and end the dominance of the whips (and behind them, the party leaders) over the choice of select committee chairs it would be a notable victory. The most substantial agenda on offer is that which would seek to make parliament more effective – to redress the imbalance between the executive and parliament so that MPs can make a better fist of holding the executive to account and scrutinising government policies and actions.

The fourth is not, as such, on offer, but it is one in which the pluralist left should take the lead. It is a participatory agenda – an agenda that would open up the legislative and scrutiny work of the House of Commons to the deliberative participation of the public and give people opportunities to propose or improve policies and laws and to hold MPs more clearly to account. There is clearly an overlap between these two agendas that ought to strengthen both.

There is already a lobby of sorts behind proposals for a more effective parliament, involving, for example, the long-established constitutional research and educational body, the Hansard Society, and the newer Constitution Unit at University College, London, as well as Compass and Democratic Audit, outside parliament; and within parliament the Parliament First Group, a loosely-knit group of reform-minded MPs such as Mark Fisher and a more informal cross-party group of peers and MPs who sat on the joint committee that examined the draft constitutional renewal bill. Their aims and ambitions are mixed, but it is possible to identify a set of proposals that should carry them along.

The first aim must be the abolition of the royal prerogative that gives the executive powers to act without informing or consulting parliament. The prerogative confers on ministers an uncounted range of powers at the moment, from the conduct of a government’s foreign and EU policy (including war, treaty-making and the UK’s role in major global institutions) to the prime minister’s vast powers of patronage.

Even the government has recognised that such powers have no place in a modern democracy, but its grudging moves towards reform have been partial. All these powers should be put on a statutory footing so that parliament can have a say in the conduct of government.

Second, of course, must be the long-delayed reform of the House of Lords, to create a smaller and properly resourced second chamber of legislators elected by an open proportional representation system (not list PR).

Third, every MP and official I have spoken to recognises that select committees, the main instruments of scrutiny in the House of Commons, simply do not have the resources or time to do their job properly.

There are exceptions, like PASC, but even Wright’s committee can’t take on all it would wish. Give them full research resources, powers to subpoena ministers and officials, adequate time and the resources to present their reports, more powers to oblige government to respond; and take the whips off their backs. Notwithstanding the expenses saga, we get parliamentary democracy on the cheap.

Fourth, this switch would require more MPs to put in time on committees. As it stands, it is hard for committee chairs to muster sufficient members to keep their committees quorate, and especially to hold meetings during the long recesses.

There has to be a paradigm shift in the work and attitude of MPs that would make the House a modern committee-driven chamber and bring to an end the pernicious ‘case-work’ ethos that does more to shore up MPs’ incumbency than to bring real redress to their constituents. Let’s have a full-time salaried service for people who require legal aid and advice and simple good counsel and free MPs to do their real work, keeping the executive in check and representing their constituencies.

There are other reforms that would make parliament more effective and open to the public: give MPs control of their own agenda; introduce fixed-term parliaments; make the choice of prime minister and ministers parliamentary business, not a ritual at Buckingham Palace; insist that government initiatives are announced first in parliament, not the media; give parliament its own legal counsel; make pre-legislative scrutiny of draft bills the norm; give MPs more space to introduce their own bills; strengthen the role of the all-committee liaison committee; and introduce soft mandating for the government’s negotiations in the EU and international forums such as the IMF.

The dominance of neoliberal ideology in the international institutions of economic governance and global financial and corporate sectors represents a major force that not only created the conditions that made the credit crunch possible, but also contributes to the hollowing out of the public sphere and privatisation of public functions and services in the UK. Soft mandating would give MPs and peers the opportunity to open up to public gaze the largely secret processes and negotiations through which the UK works in the international sphere as well as giving ministers public guidance on the policies they should pursue.

Above all, MPs must become a bloody sight more self-confident and less self-important.

Direct democracy

There is, of course, a rich, though incomplete, tradition in various forms of direct, participatory and deliberative democracy, mostly to be found outside the UK and mostly at local and regional level. There are plenty of examples: citizens juries around western Europe; the wide use of referendums and propositions; the civic forum in Scotland; participative budgeting in Porto Alegra, and less convincingly in English local authorities; town meetings in the US; deliberative assemblies in Canada to advise on electoral reform. In both South Africa and Zimbabwe, there was countrywide consultation on the constitutions in both countries, adopted in South Africa, rejected by Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Two referendums established electoral reform in New Zealand.

There is, however, very little practice that makes national parliaments open to popular participation to assist us in thinking through how we could make the UK parliament itself not only more representative but also more participatory. Of course, there are pointers and mechanisms in local and regional practice that could shape our thinking about how to bring people into parliament and give them a constitutional claim on the time of their MP. There are also warnings: participation in practice too often reduces to participation of the ‘haves’ and not the ‘have-nots’, though again there are mechanisms that are designed to ensure equity.

It should be easy (although I am not a techie) to introduce deliberative citizen involvement in the scrutiny work of pre-legislative and select committees; to introduce a petitioning process that, as in Scotland, is designed to encourage and build in citizen initiatives rather than to inhibit them as at Westminster, with proper controls in both cases to make the process equal; to introduce mandatory annual meetings between MPs and constituents, including a report-back session, that give the local public opportunities to make recommendations for the future; and possibly to introduce recall powers turning on the MP’s election manifesto.

The majority and minority parties in parliament could be required to hold day-long deliberative meetings around the country. Freedom of information laws could be widened to ensure that all lobbying contacts with government were on the public record. The second chamber could be re-constituted to exclude all special interests. Parliamentarians could be required to use the common language of the people.

I appreciate that some of my concerns and proposals actually are techie stuff. But I feel strongly that local campaigning has to have reform at national level, and particularly of parliament, as one of its focuses, for in the end parliament shapes and decides upon all our democratic and social futures.

There are opportunities now that will not last long. The British constitution is designed to withstand popular pressures, and parliament itself is ‘the rock’ behind which the political class hides and re-groups. I think we would all be failing if we did not try, at this juncture of public anger and concern, to educate ourselves and them about the choices they may wish to make to establish more popular government through a reformed parliament. I will try to set up a Real Change group in my home town.

Stuart Weir is associate director of Democratic Audit and a consultant on democracy assessment to International IDEA (Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance)

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