Opinion: Why the Liberal Democrats must put reform first

It was rather warm for February 17th. I was lost looking around the many exits of St James’ Park tube station. I was after Dr. Ken Ritchie, the former CEO of the Electoral Reform Society. Graham Smith, the CEO of Republic had given him my details originally to help The Reform Foundation (which he chairs) get a website. This escalated quickly when a few weeks later I found myself voted in as a trustee during a meeting of the other trustees.

The Reform Foundation has a board to be envious of, formed out of Republic, as an organisation to promote wider democratic reform, it consists of a wide range of academics from various political backgrounds; from Professor Stephen Haseler, who was the former deputy mayor of London on the GLC and a founding member of the SDP, to Alexandra Runswick, who is the director of Unlock Democracy. The Foundation has a simple aim; to build a better democracy, passing power to the people. In order to do this we would seek to promote popular debate about democracy, emancipating people through providing resources for advocates of political reform.

Of course, I quickly learned the reality was much different. Recently I edited a paper written by Graham Allen MP (the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee in the House of Commons). We were able to sell out of copies of the book at the John Campbell lecture organised by the Federal Union and Republic. However, I was disappointed by the lack of engagement in our organisation amongst those I have known within the Liberal Democrats. If we, by calling ourselves the Liberal Democrats, accept that democracy is the best process of collective decision-making that we, humanity, have arrived at, it must follow that we should seek to enhance it. When it is the case that more than half of all voters in the last General Election voted against their winning MP (their votes were wasted), we have a completely unelected upper House in our Parliament (which contains unelected religious clerics and people there by hereditary right) and we have an unelected Head of State, it is clear this ‘democratic’ system is not fit for purpose.

To those in our party who say this is a secondary issue I say that while our democracy is cut with dirt, any decision that derives from it cannot truly be clean. I am not involved in democratic reform because I am obsessed with details of electoral systems. I am involved in democratic reform because I believe that if we liberate our democracy and give the British people the right to a say in the type of constitutional nation we are, then we will be collectively stronger as a nation. When the Liberal Democrats rightly (in my opinion) opposed the Iraq war, it was and remains the case that their elected Members of Parliament did not have the right to vote on whether we went to war, the Prime Minister just had to be gracious enough to provide one on that occasion.

It is clear we need to battle these ideas out, and we must follow through with the longstanding Liberal Democrat call for a constitutional convention.

* Junade Ali is a trustee of The Reform Foundation and has campaigned at a local level insde the Liberal Democrats. A computer programmer by profession, Junade has run a number of computer businesses, including multiple free speech ISPs.

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31 Comments

  • Bravo. good to hear there is still some idealism in the ranks. (The first task is to stop Clegg giving in to EVEL without getting anything at all in return. He has form, you know…)

  • Sorry to post this here but don’t know where else to ask.

    I just received Literature through the post from my local Parliamentary Labour Candidate.

    Included in the leaflet is a survey which inc my name address and contact details.

    The survey asks various questions that I do not have a problem with.

    Then it asks me to select which party I voted for in the 2010 Election
    And who I am voting for in the 2015 Election.

    Is this sort of question allowed in campaign literature/ Surveys?

    As I have said before it is my intention to vote labour at the next general election but I will be extremely peeved if they are breaking campaign rules.

    Never had this sort of survey from ANY political party that includes all my contact details in the response, hence the reason i am asking

  • Junade Ali, thank you for this excellent article.
    You are absolutely right to demand that removing the obscenity of The Lords must be a priority for out party.

    We need more people like you in the party!

  • Hey matt,

    They can ask you what you like, you don’t have to answer; as long as they put the publishing information clearly on the imprint and aren’t asking you to commit fraud it’s probably OK. The EC guide to campaigns is here : http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0011/141788/Part-4-The-campaign-LGEW.pdf

    It does sounds pretty big brother, but if you’re a Labour voter you already know that’s what you’re voting for!

    @Junade,
    Top article. 100% agree, Lib Dems got ushered away from this subject after the referendum, but the problems are still apparent and reform is needed now more than ever.

  • @ChrisB

    Thanks for clarifying that for me. I just wasn’t sure as had never received anything like that before.

    As for “It does sounds pretty big brother, but if you’re a Labour voter you already know that’s what you’re voting for!

    Just to be clear I am not a Labour voter. I am a floating voter who has voted both Labour and Liberal Democrat in General Elections.
    I have said on a couple of posts lately that I am intending to vote Labour at the next election because I can not support the Liberal Democrats whilst Nick Clegg is leader of the party and Danny Alexander is head of the parties economics. Whilst the Liberal Democrats are pursuing politics to the Right of Center, I will not vote for the party.

    If there is a dramatic change in direction after the 2015 election, I may well vote Liberal Democrats again.

    But I am not and will never be pigeon holed into being classified as a voter of any particular party. I will always be a floating voter, though it is safe to say I would never vote Tory or UKIP

  • A constitutional convention is the best way to make progress on a lot of issues we as a nation have been kicking into the long grass this century past. The English question can only be solved properly with one, and the role of unelected figures free from democratic oversight would need a complete constitutional overhaul to change.

    Matt, sorry to hear that you’ll be withholding your vote. Hopefully it will be returning for 2020. As regards the Literature, its not illegal, although this sort of polling usually exists to either play a troublemaking campaign attacking the other parties in a popularity contest (these days more an unpopularity slow-race), or to try and vindicate a failing strategy.

  • @T-J
    “Matt, sorry to hear that you’ll be withholding your vote. Hopefully it will be returning for 2020”

    I hope that the Liberal Democrats will return to a position where I feel I have a genuine choice on which party I can vote for.
    I dislike being in this position that I find myself in. Politics works best for me when I genuinely feel that I have a choice between 2 parties Labour / Liberal Democrats,
    Because of the direction this party has taken during the course of this coalition and because of the language that I have heard and has been most dominating coming from the likes of Clegg / Alexander/ Laws / Browne. I feel robbed in a way and deprived of my real choice between the 2 parties.

    Fingers crossed things really change after 2015,

  • sorry forgot to say thanks T-J for your reply.

    Think I will fill in the survey but write my concerns on it, I wont support the Labour candidate if they become embroiled in dirty tricks campaign, I despise that kind of politics from any political party

  • Hey matt,
    We’re in the same boat – but I couldn’t vote Labour either (I think they were more right-wing than the Tories last time around, e.g. PFI and the war, Blair was what Thatcher wished she could be). Let’s hope we both find a decent home for our crossses in the future!

  • All this talk about political reform is fine – for the pre-2008 world. Everything has changed since then. Any politician who doesn’t understand this – the public spending constraint, the fall in living standards, the worries about the future being worse than the past – faces irrelevance. Supporting PR and an elected 2nd chamber would be good but please understand where people’s priorities are elsewhere. I fear upper middle class politicians have been far too slow too get this, or rather if they did initially, were far too quick to think it would all be sorted when the economy picked up again.

    Back in 2009 Mervyn King wondered who would actually want to win the election. He had a point because he understood what the country faced. Any politician who doesn’t won’t survive long.

  • Matt (Bristol) 10th Dec '14 - 3:56pm

    Junade, this is the sort of party I want to be part of – one that is serious about effecting significant change and improvements over time on the structures of British democracy, over most other aims. It is not idealism or geekery – as you say, in the end the urgency to reform the constitution arises out of practical politics and frustration with the lack of democratic control that people have at a local level.

    As to the details of reforms, I am pragmatic on the monarchy, on having non-elected members of the HoL (but think it should be majority elected), but right now, there has been precious little movement in 30years; and it does not feel right that the most significant (but still comparatively small) changes happened under a Labour government, rather than one with Liberal Democrat input.

  • Julian Tisi 10th Dec '14 - 5:30pm

    Hi Junade

    I think you’re pushing at an open door. Lib Dem policy on constitutional reform hasn’t changed and pretty much everyone I know in the party is very much in favour of it. You’ll appreciate that the Lib Dems have gone out on a limb in this Parliament to try to secure fairer voting (AV was the best on offer at the time) and Lords reform. Both were voted down by an unholy combination of Tory rebels conspiring with an opportunistic Labour party, itself disinterested in reform of either and simply using each as an opportunity to kick us as a party by voting down something we wanted. True – the godawful shambles of the campaign that was Yes to AV didn’t help, but at least we as a party tried on these things as others outside the party have not.

    But as some others have pointed out, constitutional reform is simply not important to most people at the moment when there are more pressing concerns to worry about. We can’t abandon the fight though and it’s good that people like you still care and still want to move things forward. If you’re not already a member can I point you to Lib Dems for Electoral Reform http://lder.org/

  • Julian Tisi 10th Dec '14 - 5:45pm

    @ Matt (Bristol) “it does not feel right that the most significant (but still comparatively small) changes happened under a Labour government, rather than one with Liberal Democrat input.”

    That would not be my view. Labour introduced devolution to Scotland and Wales but the Lid Dems had supported both for years. While creditable, each represented a shift of power away from one elected body to another elected body. But Lords reform and fairer voting are different – they represent a shift AWAY from elected politicians and into the hands of ordinary people – Lords reform, by making it democratic (who would have thought in the 21st Century people would defend an unelected legislature as part of a modern democracy)?! – Fairer voting, by making all votes count and thus re-enfranchising the many of us who aren’t swing voters in marginal constituencies.

    Labour promised back in 1997 on both of these – and in each subsequent Labour manifesto. Without being too blunt about it, they lied. They even went into the 2010 election supporting a referendum on AV. But in opposition they chose to reject both. Quite simply, Labour cannot ever be trusted on constitutional reform.

  • Personally this issue is essential and despite the huge set back of the AV referendum, I long to see the issue back at the top of the agenda. Unfortunately it is clear to me that the Liberal Democrats are virtually the only party with a principled position on representative democracy in England. My support for Lib Dem is always contingent on its position on this, the EU (and other international cooperation) and civil rights. [I assume matt has other priorities or more realistically, where he votes it will not make any difference]

  • @Junade Ali
    “When it is the case that more than half of all voters in the last General Election voted against their winning MP (their votes were wasted),”

    I don’t think the definition of a wasted vote is a vote cast for a loser. Someone has to lose.

    “we have a completely unelected upper House in our Parliament (which contains unelected religious clerics and people there by hereditary right)”

    It also contains wealthy benefactors of political parties – including the Lib Dems – which is just as bad. If the Lib Dems are really serious about putting elected people in to the Lords, why not demonstrate it by stopping the elevation of people like Baron Palumbo and organising some sort of election instead?

    I’ve never been convinced that an elected HoL would be an improvement. So long as the Lords have only tame powers of revision, I don’t see why it’s important that they be elected. An elected second chamber would be pointless unless it were given more powers, but what would be the benefit of having two powerful elected chambers instead of just one?

    @Julian Tisi
    “Both [AV and HoL reform] were voted down by an unholy combination of Tory rebels conspiring with an opportunistic Labour party”

    I think you’ll find that AV was voted down – resoundingly – by the millions of people who voted No in the referendum.

  • I am going to have agree with Julian: there are very few Lib Dems who disagree with constitutional reform. The problem is that many parts of Labour do not know what they want and the Conservatives do what they do best, converse the status quo. Furthermore, for a long time, many parts of the voting public have not seen constitutional reform as an important issue. I think due to the growing dissatisfaction with politics, it is becoming more of an important issue; however, the problem is that most still see constitutional reform as little more than Westminster window dressing, rather than one of the cures to the ills of our system.

    It also does not help that our unelected second chamber often makes more sane decisions than our elected one. Not that this is saying much, but it certainly does not enthuse the general public to believe that a wholly elected second chamber will solve much.

  • Giving people a more equitable share in their own governance is extremely relevant, and does a great deal to improve their lives. A large part of the problem with government is that it is bulky and slow, committed to large and expensive strategies that can only be altered with difficulty, and which is deaf to the needs of large sections of the country. The point of constitutional reform is not to advance a point of mathematical principle, but to but as many people as possible in the drivers’ seats, with the politicians working for them, rather than letting the politicians run off and pull the people whither they know not and where they wish not to go. If reforms can get rid of one-size-fits-all centralised policies and let regions decide matters that pertain only to local interests, and not the nation as a whole; if undemocratic elements in the constitution that favour a few at the expense of the many are purged; if there is an equitable representation in such sort that as few as possible are left unrepresented; then lives will be improved in a manner that, at present, they cannot be.

  • Julian Tisi 11th Dec '14 - 9:37am

    @ Carl
    The article above actually complains that the Lib Dems are NOT putting constitutional reform first, but you seem to be suggesting the opposite – that it’s our top priority. I don’t think that the priorities of any activist can be translated as the priorities of the party as a whole.

    But your key point is that as a party we should “let all this go” because it’s irrelevant. I disagree. This is ultimately about democracy and about the people who represent us in Parliament. Do they reflect the wishes of the people? Can they be removed easily if they’re no good? Unfortunately, under the status quo…
    – The Lords can make decisions which impact on our lives but are completely unaccountable
    – The Commons MPs are often elected in safe seats where a monkey in a suit could get elected if they have the right coloured rosette. This leads to complacent MPs who need to worry less about their electors and more about keeping their party happy
    – In such safe seats, electors are effectively disenfranchised because everyone knows a Labour/Tory/etc MP gets elected here. Thus the views of Sunderland man or Windsor woman are ignored by politicians – their votes are taken for granted. Elections become a contest only amongst floating voters in marginal constituencies. Everyone else gets ignored. This isn’t fair on the voter – their vote and their voice should count wherever people live.
    – In Scotland, when they introduced PR (STV) for local elections, parties found that they had to work for every vote. Even the Tories in Scotland admit this is good.
    – Likewise, no political party can say “Labour can’t win here (… translation, vote for us not because you like us but because we’re saying we have more chance of beating the ones you really don’t like).” This is one of the saddest aspects of our electoral system – that people have to choose not just who they most support but who they think has a chance of winning. It helps keep the 2 party system in place.

    I could go on, but the key point is that while not an immediate concern for most people, constitutional reform DOES have an impact on peoples’ lives.

  • matt (Bristol) 11th Dec '14 - 9:59am

    Julian Tisi – “Labour cannot ever be trusted on constitutional reform.”

    I don’t disagree. But right now, there are more Labour fingermarks on the British constitution than LibDem, and if we are serious about being a party that wants to change democracy in our country for the better, we should acknowledge that and it should spur us on to want to change that.

    Instead, what we are proposing seems to be a manifesto of numbers-led managerialism.

  • matt (Bristol)
    “… there has been precious little movement in 30years..”

    There has been precious little movement for 350 years. If you are “pragmatic on the monarchy, on having non-elected members in the HofL” you will be lke the horse that always falls at the first fence.

    How can you be in favour of democracy and freedom yet go along with hereditary privilege and the preserved power of the few?

    I am not saying there cannot be compromise on the way to achieving the ultimate prize — but you have to keep that prize in mind. Compromise on the means to get there, but do not compromise on the destination.

  • Helen Tedcastle 11th Dec '14 - 10:37am

    One of the reasons I joined the party (the Liberal Party) way back in the 1980s was because of its commitment to replace the clapped-out voting system. So of course the Lib Dems should be prioritising constitutional reform.

    The only thing I found tiresome about this article is that the writer picks on Bishops yet again as somehow representative of how out of touch and clapped out our Lords system is.

    I disagree.

    As the Bishops are some of the most in touch with ordinary people and their real-life problems of all the Lords – notwithstanding the most radical – this kind of lazy broad-side is unhelpful and counter-productive.

    Far more helpful would be to do something about the high numbers of appointees from big business, who are simply there because they serve the self-interests of the parties (particularly the Tories). They might give sums of money to charities but they don’t get their hands dirty, nor do they turn up to vote.

    The level of party political patronage is insidious.

  • @Helen,
    Since most people aren’t Anglican (or even practicing Christian), why should representatives of this faith have disproportionate power and sway to any other religion? It strikes me as minority rule. The other problem is their attendance, by design (rota) 0.8 of a bishop turns up to vote out of 26, which is a much lower percentage than the businessmen you claim don’t vote

    I’ll be glad when the House Of Lords is democratic..

  • Helen Tedcastle 11th Dec '14 - 2:33pm

    @ Chris B

    Most people aren’t big business men either but that doesn’t seem to be a problem. No most of them don’t turn up. In fact many of them work abroad and make a lot of money – oh and vote Tory.

    So my point is, why pick on the Bishops who perform quite a useful function in that they are in direct touch with communities on the ground. So they can inform the House about all those food banks churches are opening up to feed the working poor etc…

    I’m not an Anglican but it doesn’t bother me that I am not directly represented by relatively small number of Anglican Bishops.

    It bothers me more that I’m not represented by many other people appointed to the Lords, like former political aides to party leaders, who do proportionately far less for the common good than Bishops.

    Instead, political aides and even current journalists are elevated to the Lords because they got on rather well with their party leader, worked quite hard for a period for the party and above all, didn’t rock the boat.

  • matt (Bristol) 11th Dec '14 - 3:01pm

    Carl Gardner and Frank Booth – I would say that a constitutional settlement and local government structure that sees funding decided at the centre, by politicians who have little incentive to direct connection with the needs and concerns of their local area, can pretend that local minorities don’t exist, and are incentivised into taking up short-term positions and postures purely for short-term electoral advantage, has had a material effect on the hard decisions of the post-2008 austerity era.

    Local communities could, by contrast, be genuinely coming together to make decisions about funding cuts for their areas if the constitution was changed. The centrallised system that entrenches two political parties as would-be godfathers and sugar-daddies to the nation is at fault in preventing this. Changing it will make things better for ordinary people.

  • matt (Bristol) 11th Dec '14 - 3:03pm

    John Tilley – I can see that we have much in common that need not hamper us both petitioning for much-needed change, but I don’t see why the direction of trouble has to be towards a republic. Is not a constitutional settlement like that of a modern democratic moonarchy like, for eg, Belgium, not a worthy enough aim?

  • matt (Bristol) 11th Dec ’14 – 3:03pm

    As you say there is much we have in common In wanting constitutional change.

    I am however a little surprised that you should pick the Belgian Royals as an exemplar. See —

    http://news.yahoo.com/belgian-crown-prince-heart-royal-scandal-084313807.html

  • matt (Bristol) 11th Dec '14 - 3:42pm

    John, I’m not picking the dynasty, I’m picking the constitution.

    If you insist, I’ll submit Denmark instead. But my point was that a dynastic monarchy per se is not a barrier to a written constitution, an elected second chamber and a federal structure.

    Constitutional monarchists and republicans can be fellow-travellers without the former having to cede to the latter control over the ultimate goal.

  • Ah yes, Denmark, those terribly nice Royals that appeared in Borgen playing cards with the shipping mogul.

    Sorry matt, I prefer the NHS consultant who treats me to be qualified rather than someone who got the job by accident of birth.
    In exactly the same way, I prefer a head of state to be qualified to do the job, elected by and accountable to the people.

    I do not want my head of state to be someone thrown up at random by royal birth, whose main claim to fame is that he has big ears and talks to the roses.

    Monarchy is like homeopathy. If you look at it in the cold light of day – it is nonsense.

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