We need to revive the constitutional reform agenda but on a completely new basis - RSA

We need to revive the constitutional reform agenda but on a completely new basis


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In 1988, 348 assorted celebrities, intellectuals and political activists wrote to The New Statesman to announce the launch of a new charter for constitutional reform. The public response was strong and within a year or so a formal pressure group was formed. Charter 88, as it was called, was soon having a major influence, playing a particularly big role in shaping the manifesto commitments of the Labour Party which was to be elected with a thumping majority in 1997.  This was a heady period when it seemed that a young, forward-looking government might finally bring about a major reshaping of the constitutional settlement in the UK. The reality was somewhat less inspiring.

Only two of the Charter's ten demands led to significant change. The first was the call for "freedom of information and open government" which resulted in the 2000 Act that gave rise to the now ubiquitous freedom of information requests. The second was the call for devolution of powers to the nations which gave added impetus to the establishment of the devolved bodies.

The other core demands have come to little or nothing. Rather than a powerful and iconic Bill of Rights we have the Human Rights Act which merely enshrines the European Convention of Human Rights in British law. The campaign for proportional representation finally ran out of steam with the damp squib that was the AV referendum. Hereditary peers are now largely excluded from the House of Lords but the road to a democratically elected chamber seems permanently blocked. And maybe, most significantly, the crowning call for a written constitution that clearly enshrines and guarantees the principles and rules of British government is little more now than the subject of lugubrious discussion in  A-Level politics essays.

I was directly involved in an effort to revive and refresh the Charter 88 agenda towards the fag end of the Labour Government as Research Director for the Power Inquiry. The inquiry's final report received widespread media coverage, caused a lot of debate, secured endorsement from the leaders of all three main parties and promptly disappeared without trace.

The non-paradox of political alienation

Which all raises a seeming paradox. Why, given that dissatisfaction with politics is now much deeper than it was in 1988, is the constitutional reform agenda so dormant?  In fact, why is it that the main electoral result of that dissatisfaction is the rise in support for a populist party of the right that has, as yet, to come up with any concrete recommendations for how it will reform our constitution?

The truth is there is no paradox. The campaign for constitutional reform failed largely because it was always a movement of the left-leaning faction of the chattering classes. The rubric of Charter 88's founding document reads like a Guardian editorial in particularly high-minded mode.  The Power Inquiry report is the eager scrawl of a metropolitan wonk (i.e. me).  This was a movement inspired by the intellectual belief that the UK should become more democratic by adopting institutions and practices established by the liberal revolutions of eighteenth century America and nineteenth century Europe. Ironically it was the sort of vision that inspired the very members of the establishment that the campaign was trying to transform. Charter 88 always had the feel of an insiders' campaign talking to other insiders.

This is very different from the alienation and disengagement on which UKIP thrives. That popular anger is driven by a sense that ordinary people - genuine outsiders - are simply not listened to. A visceral feeling that the decisions taken in their name do not actually originate with them but with a self-serving cabal of London- based politicians, business leaders and media moguls.

The Power Inquiry was an attempt by some of  the people who had led Charter 88 to respond to this rising tide of disengagement and anger. But it did not work because the standard reform agenda still loomed large even though it was never entirely convincing that PR, a written constitution or an elected House of Lords would assuage the sense that people felt excluded and ignored.  In truth, they were reforms designed to meet a different concern about the British political system: its failure to live up to the institutions and values of a 'true' liberal democracy rather than one that genuinely engaged and listened to people outside the 'bubble'.

Placing delegated MPs at the heart of the reform agenda

Despite this history, there is a genuine need to revive a constitutional reform campaign. It is not sustainable for a political system to struggle on for decades in the face of permanent public disdain and disgust. At best, the result is the current situation of a degraded and degrading public realm, at worst, it is the emergence of demagogic forces that actively undermine liberal and democratic values.

That reform campaign needs to take its inspiration from one principle: the British people must feel they and they alone shape the decisions taken in their name; not parties, not multinational corporations, not newspaper editors but the people themselves. Only activation of this principle will both resolve the ongoing sense of disengagement while forcing citizens to accept that we all have a responsibility to resolve the problems we face rather than blaming them on the failings of a distant elite. The goal of any new constitutional reform agenda must be to enhance the citizen's sense of ownership over the key decisions affecting the UK.

In practice that means we must embrace the idea that our elected officials should behave more like delegates and less like representatives. MPs and Councillors should be required and adequately resourced by law to discover and abide by the views of those who elect them in their constituencies and wards as I've suggested here.

Very many people in the Bubble dislike this idea including, in fact, many who support the old constitutional reform agenda. Largely they dislike it because most of them owe their allegiance (and their position) to a political party. Being required to listen and vote according to the wishes of your constituents would very likely mean voting against the policies and principles of that party.

Many are also flattered by the old notion of Edmund Burke that elected representatives serve their constituents best when they make up their own minds rather than do as their constituents demand.  But the notion that there is a well of wisdom sitting at the heart of our democratic forums much deeper than that possessed by the wider public could only be believed either by someone who had never mixed with our MPs and Councillors or who was one of those representatives themselves (such as Burke himself).  The vast majority of our elected representatives do not make up their own mind anyway but are led by the party whips.

Delegation is also widely dismissed for a variety of other reasons:

  • It's often argued that delegation would give rise to bad law driven by the ill-informed views of the ordinary voter. This, of course, is the argument that was always used against the principles of democracy, then against the extension of the franchise and now against any form of delegation.  The truth is that our elected representatives are also very prone to making bad law often resulting from short-term media pressure. If MPs were required to encourage and enable deliberation amongst their constituents before coming to a conclusion about how they would mandate that MP, I think it is more likely that bad law made in haste would be avoided.
    • It is also claimed that the deliberations of Parliament are usually too detailed and sometimes too urgent to allow for mass consultation. This is certainly the case but through the mechanism of the Queens Speech, a Government's plans for major legislation are known in advance: deliberating and deciding on an MP's broad perspective on these Bills rather than every clause is eminently possible. And, of course, if urgent measures have to be taken which genuinely do not allow time for proper deliberation and decision then so be it. Many can, of course, be reviewed however at a more leisurely pace.
      • Many question how stable governments will be formed without parliament being controlled by strong parties and their whips. This, of course, ignores the fact that for the eighteenth century and most of the nineteenth century, governments were formed and passed perfectly adequate legislation with very loose associations of MPs in Parliament. Some of these governments were weak and unstable, some were very strong - rather like our history of governments since the rise of the modern mass party in fact. The truth is that even under a system of delegation parties will not disappear altogether. It would be for governments to set the agenda of legislation and decisions for each parliament and it would be these that the wider public would be consulted upon and would make decisions about how their MPs vote. At elections voters would be choosing the general political leaning of their MP and thus, assuming that MP's party or association was in the majority, the likely set of issues upon which they would get to deliberate and decide. A Conservative leaning government is unlikely to consult the public on a bill to nationalise rail services just as a Labour leaning one is unlikely to consult on restrictions on public sector strikes.
        • Finally, it is often claimed that voters would get bored of constant consultation, if they engage with it at all, and that ultimately it would be the self-appointed big mouths and ideologues who got to shape legislation. Leaving aside the implication that our political system is not already controlled by self-appointed big mouths and ideologues, this argument could only be made by someone who has never been deeply involved in genuine processes of deliberation that use a combination of new technologies, out-reach and carefully selected representative groups to engage 'ordinary people' in big decisions very effectively. Believe it or not, people actually like to get involved in such discussions when they think they will have a genuine impact and are conducted fairly and openly.
        • The dislike of a delegate based system is so deeply rooted in self-interest and party allegiance that such arguments will not shift the opposition. Only a campaign originating in the anger and alienation of the British public might do that.  However, for now the onus is on those who oppose delegation of MPs  to explain what their response is to alienation and disengagement. If the old constitutional reform agenda won't pass muster, what will?


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