Time for a constitutional convention

Published on http://www.labour-uncut.co.uk, 4 June 2011

THE FIRST few years of the last Labour government were radical in a number of ways, and particularly in the way we tried to reform our constitution. We (mostly) swept away the hereditary peers in the House of Lords, threw open a lot of doors and windows onto the workings of government with the Freedom of Information Act and devolved power to Scotland and Wales. This led – not as critics predicted at the time to the formation of a pair of jumped-up local councils – but two thriving institutions that have helped to foster new political systems, a process given expression in spectacular fashion in Scotland a few weeks ago.

As with other areas of policy, we began to lose our radicalism the longer we were in government and our enthusiasm for constitutional reform petered out almost to nothing. We set up a commission to examine electoral reform and then rejected Jenkins’ sensible, moderate proposals for entirely political reasons.  Lords reform was voted on innumerable times and a final proposal – when MPs finally stopped rejecting all of the permutations put to them – got nowhere.

Had we pressed ahead with our plans for a mostly or wholly elected Lords there would have been a second chamber election mid-way though this parliamentary term, giving us a chance to put a new Labour agenda to the public and – in the event of a win – prove to ourselves and to the country that we can be election winners again. A Labour win would have inflicted a mortal wound on the Coalition and provided the perfect springboard from which to launch a general election campaign. In the end, we didn’t go ahead and now Cameron has assured himself a strong position in the Lords by stuffing the upper house with Tory and Lib Dem apparatchiks.  Had we gone ahead with Jenkins’ AV+, then the progressive majority that exists in the country would have been translated into the election results and the progressive rainbow coalition touted last May that was a nice-but-impossible idea would have been entirely workable.

Ed Miliband shouldn’t let his recent unhappy dalliance with electoral reform blunt his aspirations for changes in the way we conduct public affairs, nor convince him that the British public have no appetite for changes to the way we do politics. As a result of the way it was conceived – a Liberal Democrat demand for entering into the Coalition – the referendum was seen by most through an entirely party political lens and became a referendum on the Deputy Prime Minister and not on the change he was proposing. This wasn’t helped by the way both sides anchored their campaigns in mostly ephemeral issues – whether it helped or hindered the BNP, whether it was too costly a change, whether AV would have prevented the expenses fiasco and the source of the financial backing of each campaign. It was conducted in almost complete isolation from the real issue – whether AV is a better way of electing the people who represent us – and so cannot be taken as an indication of the public’s apathy to constitutional reform.

Over the course of the Holyrood campaign, I took the chance to quiz party colleagues on their position on AV.  Of the thirty or so I asked, ‘No’ was in the majority, but not for the reasons I expected. A few of course parroted the distortions the ‘No’ campaign was built on or gave wanting to do in Nick Clegg as an excuse for voting against, but far more voted AV down because it had become too tied up with the politics of the Coalition and thus divorced from a wider and more genuine discussion of constitutional reform.  They spoke – I think rightly – of the need to have a complete review of the way we organize and run our public affairs.  Debating individual reform proposals is always going to risk them getting bogged down in minutiae like AV did: tie them all together and you might actually have a shot at a more serious and more meaningful exploration of the serious constitutional problems that we face.

That is not to say, however, that we should bring a concrete, ready-made set of plans to the electorate. Two further lessons that we should draw from the AV referendum are that Labour is far from united on the issue of constitutional reform, and that any reform will become party-politicised beyond repair if any one party is seen to be openly pushing it.  The answer to all of these concerns is to make a manifesto commitment to holding a constitutional convention some time in the next Parliament.  A non-party constitutional expert like Bognador should be made Minister for Constitutional Reform and tasked with drawing up plans for a convention.  Its terms should be drawn widely – Lords reform, electoral reform, the Monarchy, the Union, codification of the constitution, a bill of rights, the Church of England, the civil service, the EU, the courts and local government – with nothing left unconsidered.  The technicalities of convening it would have to be decided at the time, but it would have to be partly elected – with candidates preferably not running under party banners – and have a certain proportion of appointed experts and members from civil society groups.

Whether we like it or not, events in the coming years will force the UK to consider its constitutional affairs more carefully than it has done in the past. The referendum on Scottish independence has started already and will run for most of the next five years, raising a whole range of questions about the state of our political institutions and the ability of our current constitutional settlement to cope with the challenges of the future.  The abolition of hundreds of quangos will silently centralise power in Whitehall even as the Coalition promises to devolve it to the people, whilst the huge withdrawal of funds from the third sector threatens to halt the spectacular growth and strengthening of our civil society that we have seen in recent years.  Silent and unnoticed, there will be a significant shift in power that the people deserve a say on.

Constitutional reform is dismissed as political geekery, something that is way down the average voter’s list of issues, if on it at all.  True, the average person in the street may not be spending every waking moment campaigning for an elected House of Lords or a change in the Barnet formula, but there is – however ill-defined – a feeling that the political process is too distant from the people and that they don’t have the influence on public policy that citizens of a democracy should expect. Yes, parties can promise to consult more widely and politicians can use Twitter and other new media to connect with their constituents, but this will only scratch at the surface of the problem.  This feeling can only be addressed by a comprehensive and fundamental debate about the way we run organize our national civic and political life and a constitutional convention is the way to start it.

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