I can’t do the complex topic of the British Constitution justice in a swift Sunday night blog post, but plenty of concerns about British constitutional structures have been playing on my mind since the Brown ‘non-election’ furore on 6th October, and ongoing fights about the EU Reform Treaty.
In short there are a bunch of issues that need to be sorted out:
- The election system for Westminster – PR is more vital than ever with turnout hovering around 60% and Labour with a majority in 2005 on the basis of 35.2% of the vote delivering 55.1% of the seats – see this paper from Make My Vote Count.
- Fixing the House of Lords – it’s clear that some sort of democratic system is needed, but how should this be organised? It needs to be on a different basis to the Commons, and it needs to be made clear why people should vote. Plus with the interim solution with 92 hereditary peers in place since 1999 it’s time to make progress with this issue. More from Elect The Lords.
- A better devolution settlement, bringing in the question of local government, and finding a solution for the West Lothian Question. It’s ludicrous that you can have so many different setups for the layers of government depending on where you live in the UK, with different systems to elect the different players. Do we need cabinet systems, directly elected mayors etc.? Let’s at least have some consistency. The Local Government Bill is welcome, but it does not get to grips with the piecemeal nature of things.
- Fixed Term Parliaments – let’s put an end to this ludicrous game of calling elections early, with one party leader basically being able to make everyone else jump at his/her personal whim. It’s lousy for the general population, and contributes to the dangerous impression that politics is just a game carried out by a select few in Westminster. Hence I welcome the initiative of Iain Dale and others to launch the website Fixed Term.
- The role of Direct Democracy. What sorts of questions should it be used for? What rules should determine if a referendum is needed? National referendums are even banned in some countries (Germany for example) but the UK has used them a lot recently without any debate about the merits (or not) of direct democracy, together with a load of minor local referendums. This debate is highlighted by the hand-wringing about the EU Reform Treaty.
So what should we do about all of that? The UK should set up a kind of Constitutional Convention or Constitutional Assembly to advise on the best way to solve these complex questions. It would need a few years to work, would have to go out and speak to all kinds of people – in schools, shopping centres, talking to people on the doorsteps – but it would be a vital step to help revitalise British politics. The end result would be to propose the draft of a written British Constitution.
It would be very much the sort of serious solution to a serious problem – it was Gordon Brown who said that people “don’t want politicians resorting to gimmicks and getting quick headlines” (Gordon Brown, interview in The Telegraph). So let’s do something more fundamental than papering over the increasingly visible cracks in the UK’s political system.
I definitely concur in the proposal to have a written constitution. You cannot have a constitutional reform without a written constitution.
In reply to Toque – that would be OK by me… We would need all kinds of consultations – with regions, with the Welsh, Scottish, English, different interest groups. I don’t think Ming wanted just an English consultation – it would be one of many.
A lot of the problems come under the collective title ‘The English Question’.
And there only one way to solve the English Question (which includes the West Lothian Question) and that’s to ask the English people. Just as the other nations have been consulted collectively.
So your UK Constitutional Convention needs to come after (or should contain) a purely English consultation as Ming Campbell recommended.
To Jeremy: yes, I was aware of the Lib Dem proposals!
To Giacomo: I agree with you about the challenges of second chambers, but with so much experience in so many different countries to look at I am sure the British could find some good examples (although I am not against unicameralism in principle).
Oh don’t you really have fixed term legislature? And do you really have non elected members in a legislative chamber? Astonishing…
(I feel sorry also for my ignorance of it)
Anyway if I can give an advice from Italian experience, pay attention to the double chamber system. In Italy we have had it for many years, a quite symmetric system, the two chambers were elected on national base with the same powers, they were different just because people can vote for the Chamber of Deputies since they were 18 years old, instead the minimum for the Senate was 21.
The effect has always been very bad, very slow legislative activity because of the table tennis game between the two Chambers and a really baroque structure of the legislative corpus because of the amendment professionals.
Honestly I think that double Chambers make sense only in federal States.
At their September conference the Liberal Democrats agreed proposals for just such a convention (policy motion here and full policy paper )