Bending the Constitution: can we make this a campaigning issue?

Austin Mitchell, a wonderfully maverick Labour MP, once described the British constitution as ‘whatever the government can get away with.’. A government with a big Commons majority can get away with a lot, so long as the polls remain in its favour. This government, above all this prime minister, has got away with a great deal so far, and intends to push its advantage a good deal further through changes in law and electoral regulation now before Parliament. As one of his Eton teachers remarked, Boris Johnson does not think that rules and conventions apply to him.

Press commentators have noted that one reason for the contempt with which No.10 intended to treat the Commons Standards Committee report on Owen Paterson was their firm belief that voters don’t care about ministerial or parliamentary behaviour. In most circumstances, most voters don’t – until the frequency of scandals builds up, and the government starts to look grubby, as happened under John Major nearly thirty years ago. That led to the setting up of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, with other government and parliamentary standards commissioners, whose roles are now being challenged by the cynics in No.10.

There’s a lot more on the government’s agenda that’s intended to tilt the balance of political advantage in its favour and reduce the effectiveness of outside scrutiny. The Dissolution and Recall Bill, which has cleared the Commons and will enter the Lords in late November, not only repeals the Fixed Term Parliaments Act but restores the prime minister’s prerogative power to call elections, and bans judicial review of any such decision. A second bill focuses on limiting the ability of judges to review other ministerial decisions. The Elections Bill aims to reduce the independence of the Electoral Commission, loosen campaigning rules that Conservatives have fallen foul of, impose identity checks on voters, raise spending limits and make it easier for UK citizens living abroad to make donations to political parties.

What’s happened this past week will make it much easier to block the most outrageous of these proposals in the Lords. Even Conservatives will not want to give more unconstrained power to this prime minister. Undemocratic, indefensible in its composition, the Lords has become the most effective opposition to this corrupt government – which is why Johnson wants to appoint more right-wing Brexiteers to it, to weaken its resistance to government plans. We should be ready to denounce any new Conservative appointments, and also be ready to attack public appointments that put Johnson cronies into important posts.

I think we are at another tipping point in public concern about the quality of our democracy. And there’s more to come: the eye-watering sums wasted on outsourcing test-and-trace, the cosy links between outsourcing companies and the Conservative Party, and the flow of Russian money into Conservative funds, are still scarcely explored. We must take the opportunity to argue for a root-and-branch reform of British democracy: a revival of local democratic government – the bedrock of a citizen’s democracy; a voting system that gives a much wider choice among candidates and parties; and a Parliament with much greater power to constrain how government behaves. People are at last beginning to sit up and notice that the Conservative Party is no longer a real party; it’s a generously-funded centralised machine, run by a mixture of cynical careerists and right-wing ideologues. Let’s encourage the public to ask for something better.

* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords. He has taught at Manchester and Oxford Universities and at the LSE.

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18 Comments

  • Brad Barrows 8th Nov '21 - 1:47pm

    When all the opposition parties stated that they would boycott a new ‘sleaze commission’, the Tories were forced into a U-turn. We should learn the lesson – all opposition parties should join the SNP in refusing to nominate members to the House of Lords until democratic reform is conceded.

  • Constitutional change has always been classic Liberal/Lib Dem territory. And there have been periods when liberals campaigned vigorously on PR and a substantial number of voters voted to say than they wanted it. Not enough of course. Yes. let’s make constitutional abuse and contempt for the law a campaigning issue and a way into a wider agenda, but there are two major hurdles to be thought through.
    (1) The Tory press will go out of their way to tell people that they are not really interested in such matters – peripheral to the pound in your pocket so-to-speak.
    (2) On the far right (where does that start these days?) there are the supporters of the myth/Big Lie “They are all the same.” Dictators have ridden to power on that one.
    The weak constitution of the UK has contributed to national decline and gross inequality over many decades. It’s a hard sell – but worth it.

  • Barry Lofty 8th Nov '21 - 3:31pm

    Not much I could can argue with in Lord Wallace’s piece, but I have to be sceptical about Conservatives not wanting give more unrestrained power to the present Prime Minister, I hope he is right?
    As for the Lords, although it has many faults, it seems the country needs it now more than ever to keep this awful government in check.

  • David Evans 8th Nov '21 - 3:57pm

    In answer to the question asked in the title to William’s piece – No. If we made a campaign about Boris Johnson and his party’s corruption – Yes.

    I am afraid to say like too many Lib Dems, William he is far too polite far too often to be even noticed by the public. “Bending the Consitution” is so timid as to be worthless. It is so like most of our policies, and is one of the reasons we have failed so badly over the last decade.

    I suggest a course on effective writing and campaigning, beginning with
    – Remove “tilt the balance of political advantage in its favour” and replace with “destroy democratic accountability”
    – Remove “reduce the effectiveness of outside scrutiny” and replace with “brush everything they do wrong under the carpet”
    – Remove “restores the prime minister’s prerogative power to call elections” and replace with “allows him to do whatever he wants”
    – Remove “to reduce the independence of the Electoral Commission, loosen campaigning rules that Conservatives have fallen foul of, impose identity checks on voters, raise spending limits and make it easier for UK citizens living abroad to make donations to political parties” and replace with “Undermine the way Britain does elections to allow big money and big business to buy the Conservatives into power.

    and just one more

    – Remove ” Let’s encourage the public to ask for something better.” and replace with “Let’s fight for the future of our country and demand better.”

    There’s an old saying, “If it’s worth fighting for – It’s worth fighting dirty for.” Too often our motto seems to be “If it’s worth fighting for – Let’s write an earnest piece couched in nuanced terms, that means little to the general public, saying we are a bit miffed about it all.”

  • John Marriott 8th Nov '21 - 4:30pm

    Whilst I have every sympathy for Lord Wallace’s ideas; the cynic in me says that the public in general just is not interested. According to a survey published today on attitudes to combatting climate change, few, when questioned, appeared to be willing to change their lifestyle, as The Guardian put it “to save (the) planet”. If that’s the case, there’s not much hope for their getting excited about constitutional reform.

    I keep coming back to ‘bread and circuses’; but that seems about all that many people care about. Today’s headlines featured prominently the news that, “after over 600 days”, we can now, if fully vaccinated, fly to the US again. “ ‘O frabjous day, Callooh, Callay’ He chortled in his joy”, as Lewis Carroll delightfully put it.

    Sleaze (but let’s call it by its proper name – corruption) has reared its ugly head again. But did it ever go away? Whose motion on the latest antics was called for debate by Mr Speaker? To listen to the media you would have thought that it was Her Majesty’s Official Opposition. The PM is apparently too busy availing himself of another photo opportunity up north to bother to attend. As for some of the other stuff his government is ramming through Parliament, why abolish the FTPA anyway as it has been proved pretty easy to circumvent over the past few years in any case?

    I could go on but it’s too depressing. That ‘tipping point’, as Lord Wallace calls it, still seems a long way off to me. I really hope I’m proved to be wrong.

  • nvelope2003 8th Nov '21 - 6:02pm

    The sort of people who support Boris Johnson are enjoying the spectacle of him ignoring all the fuss from those boring Labour people and getting away with it. In Nazi Germany Hitler’s supporters claimed to believe it was his officials who were responsible for anything bad and he would have stopped it if he had known and they went on thinking that even when their country was reduced to ashes. Johnson is enjoying every minute of this and knows it would require a political earthquake to get him out, like all those lorry drivers deciding to ask for Brexit to be cancelled so they could have more competition for jobs. It will not happen. They have got what they wanted.

  • nvelope2003 8th Nov '21 - 6:07pm

    Brad Barrows: You are right but the Conservatives led by Johnson would simply ignore it and use their absolute power to do what they want. Many of his policies are very popular and few people care tuppence about the House of Lords because they do not see the point of it.

  • Christopher Moore 8th Nov '21 - 9:28pm

    Bread and butter issues are what move nearly all of the electorate, nearly all the time.

    However, occasionally, corruption does become an important issue at GEs: ’97 and ’10, for example. I’m not sure we’re quite there yet.

    (PR is never going to be a significant vote-winner. Apart from LD and Green members, It’s of interest only to a few anoraks.)

    The Tories may seem impregnable currently: but they are making a series of errors – from hubris and a sense of entitlement.

  • Peter Watson 8th Nov '21 - 11:41pm

    Christopher Moore “PR is never going to be a significant vote-winner.”
    That’s a very important point that often seems to be overlooked!
    For voters to get excited about PR, enough of them need other reasons to vote for a party and then to be outraged that the party they support is unfairly represented in Parliament. Not enough people seem interested in the Lib Dems to be concerned whether there are 6 or 60 Lib Dem MPs.
    The only time I recall unfair representation making the headlines was in 2015 when UKIP returned 1 MP despite getting 13% of the public vote, though ultimately that party achieved its objective anyway.

  • Jayne mansfield 9th Nov '21 - 10:02am

    Lord Wallace’s thoughtful and well- reasoned articles are always a pleasure to read, and difficult to argue with, but I have to agree with David Evans.

    There has been too little anger and effort to call out crony capitalism for what it is – corruption. I do not accept that this a new phenomenon in our politics. In my opinion, it is simply more blatant now that the Conservatives under the leadership of Boris Johnson , and his government under cover of covid, seemingly have the power to get away with it..

    Yes, the voting public are interested in the bread and butter issues that affect their lives, but an effective opposition would point out that a corrupt crony capitalism strikes at the the heart of decision making that does affect the bread and butter issues that they care about..

    It might suit to focus on one man’s breaching of parliamentary rules, but the response opens up, if one stops taking a ‘don’t scare the horses’ approach, a real opportunity to clean out the stables.

    Our blind spot in the West has always been for me, the fact that we can see corruption in other countries with autocratic less developed democracies , and freely refer to kleptocracies. plutocracies, but never ask ourselves , but who are the corrupters, and are we free from such practices?

    Perhaps it is age, but I would die happier, if I saw at least some deep reflection on how our ‘democracy’ works and we started to cast the mote out of our own eyes.. Boris Johnson and the current Conservative government may have done us a supreme favour if this happens.

  • Barry Lofty 9th Nov '21 - 10:14am

    Whether PR will ever be a vote winner is somewhat irrelevant at the moment, what is very worrying, for the stability of the world, is the way people in many countries are voting for some very dangerous self serving right-wing politicians! Unfortunately memories are very short.

  • Nigel Jones 9th Nov '21 - 11:10am

    I too have to agree with David Evans in his excellent suggestions for strengthening the language used to put our case against Boris’ seizing of more power. I agree with everything William Wallace writes and this issue is a very serious one, but we have to be good at communication with the general public if we are to convince enought people about it and have to put it alongside more bread and butter issues.

  • Peter Wrigley 9th Nov '21 - 11:30am

    Jayne mansfield (and everybody else.) Please read Nesrine Malik’s excellent article in the Guardian (08/11/21) on how our democracy is seeping away without the majority of the electorate being all that bothered.

    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/nov/08/corrupt-regimes-cynicism-britain-voters-political-class.

    William is right: we must fight. We must use our campaigning skills to rise above the pavement and make it matter.

  • Jayne mansfield 9th Nov '21 - 1:33pm

    @ Peter Wrigley,
    Thank you for the suggestion, although I dare say that it might just confirm my own beliefs and depress me further. I am a fully paid up member of the John Marriott ‘Cynicism Brigade.’

    I hope that your campaigning skills can dent the unashamed damage that is being inflicted on our already far from perfect democracy, but I doubt you have the ruthlessness to do that, and that includes language that our now coarse , dishonest politics demands if one is to be heard. ‘and ‘cut through’.

    No disrespect to Lord Wallace, but it comes to something when our last hope of fighting for our democracy is the anachronistic House of Lords, a place that is overdue for abolition!

  • Barry Lofty 9th Nov '21 - 4:23pm

    Peter Wrigley:: Thanks for the link,whilst I agree with Nesrine Maliks views it only confirms what many are saying on this subject and it is really depressing that so many of us feel that things are unlikely to change, I still cling to my belief regarding Boris Johnson though, that there was a feeling, back in day, that Margaret Thatcher was untouchable how wrong we were then, but of course that may not solve the dire problem of corruption although it may go a long way to helping the situation when he is eventually oversteps the mark. It is this that keeps me going ha!!

  • Katharine Pindar 10th Nov '21 - 10:36pm

    It is indeed ironic that the House of Lords has had to become ‘the most effective opposition to this corrupt government’, as you say, William. It’s corruption which is more likely to influence the voters in the forthcoming by-elections, well helped by the exposure of the outrageous behaviour of Sir Geoffrey Cox MP, who should be glad to feel in little danger of being shot by an extremist, as he seems unlikely to be able to spare time to meet his constituents in local surgeries.

    There should not be ‘safe’ seats where the elected MPs can do what they want, and we can say so to the voters with conviction at the moment, despite the tragic death quite recently of one more dedicated and honest Tory MP. However, I am really writing to thank you, William, and all the conscientous and hard-working peers who do remind us of the offensive legislative moves of this government, who amend what you can, and alert us to the necessity for continued campaigning opposition.

  • Christian de Vartavan 30th Nov '21 - 8:29am

    Very good article and interesting comments. Makes you proud to be a member of this party :).

  • Christian de Vartavan 30th Nov '21 - 8:34am

    PS – And yes, this should be a campaign issue if not because people don’t always focus on what matters (to put it mildly).

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