Constitutional Change: A Pointless Discussion?

Jon Snow makes an interesting point:

The fact is that the Westminster system, as we are discovering, has a collectively serious democratic deficit. We have an unelected head of state, an unelected head of government, and an unelected upper house.

That places a massive burden on the bits that ARE elected. But the system by which MPs are elected ensures that a minority of votes elects a usually significant parliamentary majority for one party (last time round Labour, with little more than a third of the votes).

It also ensures that it is only a minority of the 650+ MPs in which a serious democratic challenge ever occurs.

Hence this “gentlemen’s club” hegemony of which Gordon Brown so suddenly loudly complains. Once elected, who would ever want to change it? You inherit or design rules so arcane that the “club” retains an almost masonic secrecy and unchangeability.

And once inside the club who would leave? Certainly not those for whom the trail leads inexorably to the House of Lords. The Queen’s birthday honours beckon very immediately. I have asked the question before: should there be an moratorium on any more appointments to the Lords? It’s not a bad test of these party leaders’ commitment to reform.

My sense is that the fact that the three party leaders call for constitutional reform, and that two of them (Brown announcing a modest possible conversion as recently as the Andrew Marr Show on BBC yesterday) now embrace the prospect of electoral form, means very little.

A ship of state has been constructed down the years of such complexity and such indestructibility that it is hard to see how anything, short of revolution is likely to change it. And the party leaders certainly won’t be taking that course.

I wish he were wrong. Nick Clegg is making (apart from his increasingly popular call for a recall mechanism for MPs who are proven guilty of wrongdoing) proposals for constitutional change, which have come repeatedly from his predecessors, and this is where Snow’s stumbling block comes into play. Blair promised PR in 1997 and a cabinet position to Paddy Ashdown, but reneged after he found just how useful first-past-the-post was to him. Why on earth should Cameron do anything else, when under the current system Brown is finished? Brown in turn sadly is so weak a leader he can’t even see just how much he might have to gain by pushing electoral reform and systematic changes in the Commons. It all hinges on whether Labour has the guts to kick out Brown. If not, believe me we’ll have variations on the theme which has got us into this mess again and again for decades to come. Political life will continue to draw the wrong people in, will allow their excessive behaviour and then inevitably lead to the wrong laws being passed for the wrong reasons. Get a backbone, Labour!


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