New Labour started out very well, at least in some aspects. Donald Dewar brought in a new constitutional settlement for Scotland, and similar arrangements were brought in in Wales and Northern Ireland. Then everything ground to a halt. Blair had agreed to proportional representation before the 1997 election, after which he found he had the power to ignore the Lib Dems entirely – so he did. Progressive politics in that respect have never recovered, until now. With the political system at its knees, crippled by its own hubris, illiberalism and an economic crisis partly of its own making, the way out is becoming clear, and some members of the cabinet are starting to realise it:
What the modernisers inside the cabinet want on the agenda is:
• A referendum on electoral reform for the House of Commons.
• An elected upper house.
• Spending caps on donations to political parties.
• A widening of the base from which candidates are drawn.
However, some senior cabinet figures argue a more radical agenda should be deferred for Labour’s general election manifesto, and are sceptical that broader constitutional reform, including changes to the electoral system, will address public anger over expenses. There are also fears a big initiative would divert from the priorities of the recession and public services.
This can’t be deferred. A referendum must be on the ballot for 2010 (or sooner), asking whether the people want proportional representation. A change in the voting system is desperately needed to force a change in the political culture, away from arrogance and hubris to consultation and cooperation; it works in Scotland. The arrogance with which this government has toyed with our civil liberties is entirely down to a culture which encourages them to do as they please. Most people don’t want ID cards, most people after all didn’t vote Labour at the last election, but that’s not the message they get. Seumas Milne is entirely right too:
Unless parliamentary democracy is about choice, it’s meaningless. The legacy of New Labour is a contest over the narrowest of political and economic options, presided over by highly centralised party machines, where internal democracy has withered and party members have drifted away.
There is no reason why any of the reforms being discussed would automatically overcome that dismal inheritance. Unless new parties are able to break the existing political monopoly – a mountain to climb under first-past-the-post even in current circumstances – that would require an end to authoritarian party control, space for internal pluralism, and the local right to choose election candidates freely.
For Labour in particular, such an upheaval would mean a reconstitution of the party. But without a profound change in the kind of people who are chosen as MPs and a reconnection between electors and elected, underpinned by a right of recall, this crisis of representation will not be overcome.
Nor is there any reason to think that calling an early general election – as now demanded by Tories and Liberal Democrats – would lance the boil. Until the parties have themselves cleared out their more sleazy incumbents, the most likely outcome would be a string of corruption referendums, rather than contests over programmes and policies, with a proliferation of celebrity and clean-hands candidates delivering a Tory landslide on a historically low share of the vote.
John Bercow MP has now acknowledged that it is also the inner workings of parliament which are broken and need fixing, and has announced his candidacy to become the new Speaker of the House of Commons to fix it. He’s promised:
• Changes to the composition of Commons select committees, a hint that he would strip party whips of the right to nominate members;
• Giving backbench MPs a greater role in scutinising the government;
• To act as an “ambassador for parliament to the people”.
And I think these are vitally important points. Granted New Labour’s excesses have been a disgrace, but the illiberal laws they’ve run through, and the illegal wars they’ve waged have been insufficiently scrutinised or rubber stamped by a parliament increasingly unable or unwilling to hold the executive to account. If Bercow’s candidacy is a step towards repairing this broken culture of the House then that can only be a good thing, and it would be a vital second component of the constitutional reform which is being openly mulled by journalists and politicians alike. If a Speaker like Bercow were pushing a very public discussion for proportional representation at the very least, it would be the first step in benefiting both his profession and beginning the process of returning power back to the people and away from this disgusting rabble. I don’t believe for a second that Gordon Brown has the guts to hold a constitutional convention to shape the reforms I mentioned at the beginning of this article, but the fact that he’s being openly pushed to do so could yet augur some of the best news for progressive politics in this country in my lifetime. Will the database state survive?