William Wallace writes: Making the case for Constitutional Reform

Rishi Sunak has told the Conservative Party conference that British politics are ‘broken.’  That will make it more difficult for his party to resist changes in the way we do politics – constitutional reform, as we nerds put it.

It was the Conservatives that broke British politics, of course – or rather, populists inside and outside the party, cheered on by right-wing media (and American and Russian encouragement and funding) that swept aside established conventions on political behaviour and governmental restraint.  A major new report on political reform, jointly published by the Institute for Government and the Bennett Institute for Public Policy in Cambridge, notes the breakdown of constraints on executive behaviour, attacks on judges and the rule of law, attempts to bypass parliamentary scrutiny and the steady erosion of local government that has characterised the past eight years.

Four prime ministers since 2015, seven chancellors of the exchequer, nine secretaries of state for education – constant ministerial churn, changes in policy announced without much preparation or consultation and then reversed by the minister’s successor.  This single-party government has given Britain an object lesson in incompetent government.

The Conservative conference demonstrated how ungovernable the Conservative Party has become.  Liz Truss peddled her free market nonsense to a packed fringe meeting.  Ministers attacked policies that no-one had yet put forward. Danny Kruger, representing the American-influenced evangelical right wing, channelled conspiracy theories about the threat that climate change efforts were intended to bring ‘world government’.   Nigel Farage swanned round the conference, wearing his GB News pass: not a delegate, but a highly visible presence, benefitting like other right-wing populists from generous GB News funding.

Keir Starmer in his Labour conference speech almost echoed the prime minister.  ‘Our politics feels broken’, he declared; ‘we must win the war against the hoarders in Westminster, give power back and put communities in control.’  But beyond a reference to strengthening local government, he has said nothing specific about political reform beyond making it clear that he is opposed to changing the voting system.  He gives every impression that he intends to govern within the same centralised, executive-dominated structure the Conservatives have used and abused, with only minor adjustments to improve relations with the UK’s three devolved governments.

Given how low trust in Britain’s politics has sunk, and how difficult the choices facing any incoming government will prove, it’s unlikely that this will be enough to rebuild the ‘partnership between people and politics’ that Starmer promises to achieve.  And the danger facing Britain after 5-10 years of Labour government would be a reinvigorated, well-funded, right-wing populist Conservative Party offering itself to a disillusioned public as the only alternative our political system provides.

Outside the mutual accusations of two-party politics, and the hysteria of the right-wing media, there has been a good deal of informed and expert analysis of what has gone wrong.  The Institute for Government’s Review of the British Constitution draws on substantial preparatory papers, and proposes reforms that an incoming government could easily introduce to entrench constitutional acts, parliamentary scrutiny of constitutional proposals, and public confidence in the processes of change.

In July the IfG and University College London’s Constitution Unit jointly published Options for Reform, which listed distinguished ‘Quick Wins’ on coming into government from moderate changes and longer-term major reforms. The Institute for Public Policy Research has published several papers on ‘renewing democracy’, and Labour itself last December published the report of the ‘Commission on Britain’s Future, chaired by Gordon Brown, focussing on relations between different levels of government and a transformed second chamber.

Little of this, however, has attracted public attention.  No-one wins elections by campaigning for constitutional reform.  Yet without structural change to the way we play politics and are governed, popular disillusion will deepen and anti-democratic movements will grow.

Liberals Democrats should care passionately about the quality of democracy.  We need to make the case that good government requires institutional change – and that the continuation of poor government, over-centralised, executive-dominated, remote from popular engagement, jumping from one immediate decision to another, will further damage our social cohesion, our public services, and our prospects for economic growth.

 

* William Wallace is Liberal Democrat spokesman on constitutional issues in the Lords.

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9 Comments

  • Steve Trevethan 12th Oct '23 - 11:31am

    Thank you for an important article!

    Perhaps, if our party were to make really clear to the electorate that the tax rules and applications, plus the B of E, are skewed to benefit the very wealthy, we might interest the electorate in working and voting for constitutional reform which could make our (their?) tax set up equitable and transparent.

    Richard Murphy is very good on this!

  • Katharine Pindar 12th Oct '23 - 11:37am

    A wonderful summary of all that has been wrong about government in the last few years, thank you, William, together with an impressive summary of all the proposals for reform from academics and think tanks. In our own democratic system, is the next step a policy paper on the most needful reforms for our next Conference to discuss? I seem to remember proposals for a Constitutional Convention in the past. Should we mean do you think to make more directly PR a red line in any future co-operation of our party with the new government, to try and force their hand?

  • Peter Martin 12th Oct '23 - 2:07pm

    “the ‘partnership between people and politics’ that Starmer promises to achieve.” ???

    Starmer will promise, even give a solemn pledge, about anything and everything that he feels is necessary to win an election. He’s not to be trusted.

    https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/keir-starmer-broken-promises-political-lying-dishonest/

  • Martin Gray 13th Oct '23 - 1:14pm

    @Peter …
    You’re right …The vast majority of voters couldn’t give a fig about reform…Apart from GE’s & the opportunity to leave the EU most voters don’t seem to bother with local elections or pcc’s . The more deprived the area the less engagement in my experience. People just ain’t interested as much as we like to believe..

  • David Evans 13th Oct '23 - 2:58pm

    I’m sad to have to contradict the very first paragraph of William’s post, but the Conservatives will have no difficulty in resisting “changes in the way we do politics – constitutional reform, as we nerds put it.”

    They had no difficulty at all in resisting the entirety of Nick Clegg’s proposals for constitutional reform from 2010 to 2015, and that was when Nick was Deputy Prime Minister to David Cameron with responsibility for Constitutional Reform!

    We may care passionately about the quality of our democracy, but until someone comes up with a plan and a mechanism that will deliver improvement despite the total opposition of the two (possibly three) entrenched major parties who are totally against it … Let’s focus on policies along with mechanisms that will deliver what voters want and need.

    I would start with Land Value Taxation at about 3% on the value of all land that has planning permission on it. That will get them building or at least provide funds to fill the gap in local authority budgets.

  • Peter Hirst 13th Oct '23 - 4:38pm

    If noone wins votes by talking about constitutional reform we must reframe ths topic so it is relevant to ordinary people. We could talk about fairness, choice or just take the pragmatic approach. Constitutional reform will make it easier to tackle the major problems our country faces. It will bring hope, involvement and trust, factors that most people care about if they can rise temporarily above their current concerns.

  • We must now take the longer view, and seriously attempt to gauge not merely WHEN Proportional Representation will be upon us, but what it will actually be like, and how we shall manage it, because — SURELY? — everything will change.

    First, the result will not be one winner and two also-rans. I think the House of Commons will be something like ten competing, haggling, promising parties.
    Say two Cons, two Labs, two Libs, two Greens, and a couple of others, give or take.

    Second, who will be the PM? Will there be a Chancellor of the Exchequer — or would that be an elected Chair of the Budget Conference, struggling not to dictate, as today, but to wrangle and arm-twist Budget and Banking into a workable synthesis?

    Am I just dreaming in my dotage? Or has our Party got it all worked out? Or at least some secret Working Parties?

  • I failed to mention another related problem alongside. That was an alternative LibDem approach to our current policy on how to engineer a Basic Income: it’s coming. The Inland Revenue to pay it and run it.

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