Opinion: A constitutional convention: If not now, when?

As a Jack I owe my life and heritage to Scotland. I totally understood why so many Scots voted yes, but the thought of losing Scotland also filled me with dread. However, whichever side of the debate you sat, I hope we can all agree that the positive outcomes for all of us have been the revitalising of politics in Scotland and the reopening of the question of how as a United Kingdom we should constitute ourselves. We saw graphically the power of having a say in something that really matters. No, the electorate are not apathetic, they are disillusioned and cynical. I don’t think I have ever been out canvassing without at least one comment of “you’re all the same” – to which my reply is generally “if we were all the same why on earth would I be in the Lib Dems?”  We now have a great opportunity to demonstrate that difference, to lead the debate in response to the events of last week.

So, as the call is growing stronger for a Constitutional Convention, I firmly believe this is an issue we as a party should and must take a lead on. Unlock Democracy, the Electoral Reform Society and others including the Labour and Green parties, are  calling for a citizen led convention. In my view such a convention must tackle not only the relationship between our four nations and devolution of power from the centre, but also electoral and Lords reform. This is our bread and butter – our opportunity to kill more than a few birds with one stone! For too long reform has been slow and piecemeal. Despite the clear disaffection of so many, the political elite continue to drag their collective ‘vested interest’ hobnail boots. Remember the man in his 70s who was voting for the first time in Scotland?Despite the clear interest and engagement of the people when they have the chance to vote for something that really matters, the threat that this always poses to those who already have power limits progress.

While the Tories seem determined to respond to the referendum result by tinkering at the edges, preventing non English parliamentarians from voting on English matters, we need to have a clear voice differentiating ourselves from an approach that merely reinforces the current constitutional flaws. So while it may be unfair for MPs from Scotland to vote on English matters, is not an unelected second chamber, built on the corrupting influence of patronage, equally, if not more unfair?

We have sadly missed two opportunities for limited reform in this parliament.  We can’t allow this opportunity to pass us by.

If you would support an emergency motion calling for a Constitutional Convention please contact me as soon as possible on [email protected]

* Linda Jack is a former youth worker and member of the party's Federal Policy Committee.

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42 Comments

  • Great idea but we shouldnt wait on The Conventions conlusions. Local Councils should be demanding more Powers now.

  • David Evershed 23rd Sep '14 - 11:41am

    You don’t need a Constitutional Convention to determine that it is unfair for non English MPs to vote on English only laws and for Westminster to make appropriate voting arrangements.

    Voluntarily SNP MPs generally don’t vote on English only laws and it is shameful that Labour and Lib Dem MPs representing Scottish constituencies still do.

    Discussion about devolution of powers within England will be never ending and is just a way for Labour (and Lib Dems?) to delay the inevitable change with voting on English only issues at Westminster.

    Just to be clear, Welsh MPs would obviously also vote on laws which apply to England and Wales and similarly NI MPs.

  • Matthew Huntbach 23rd Sep '14 - 12:20pm

    Remember how AV was killed in the referendum?

    AV is not proportional representation, so it does not solve the problem of the current UK electoral system leaving local minorities unrepresented, but it does deal with the issue that many have put down as a cause of people’s dissatisfaction with politics, the “safe seat” mentality, in which there are many places where one party always wins, so politicians get complacent and arrogant because they do not have to bother going out and really winning the votes with a good candidate the people like in such places. The FPTP electoral system encourages the safe seat mentality, because people feel they have to vote for the official candidate of their favoured mainstream party out of fear that if they didn’t the vote would be “split”, and the candidate of the mainstream party they don’t like would get in on that basis. With AV, however, a complacent mainstream candidate can be challenged by an independent who is sympathetic to the general aims of that mainstream party, because people can vote for the independent without fear of “splitting the vote”, as their second preference can go to the mainstream candidate. That is, they don’t have to play the game of second-guessing whether an independent or third party challenge will succeed, which they do under FPTP and which generally leads to the safety-first option of sticking with the mainstream candidate.

    OK, putting it that way, AV is attractive, is it not? So why did the people vote against it by two-to-one? Well, in part because of the awfulness of the “Yes” campaign, who seemed unable and.or unwilling to explain it in the terms I’ve suggested above that might have sold it. But also because while people will moan about politics as it is, there is often quite a reluctance when it comes down to it to actually go ahead with changing the system. Also because constitutional change is abstract, and most people find it rather boring, so it’s very easy for the powers-that-be to dismiss it as something irrelevant, that only crazy people like Liberal Democrats are interested in, and it just shows how out-of-touch they are that they bang on about that sort of thing rather than the bread-and-butter issues that are what really concern people.

    Because it is abstract, referendums on constitutional issues tend to get transformed in the public mind into referendums on something else. In Scottish Independence referendum we can see that the “Yes” campaign tried to make it a referendum on “Do you dislike the Thatcherite policies of the current UK government?”, suppressing the real problems that independence would bring about and the fact that independence wouldn’t solve the underlying problem of how to pay for all the things people want government to do. The “AV” campaign became a referendum on “Do you like Nick Clegg?”, and the illogic of voting “No” on that basis and thus “Yes” to the very distortion that led to the government that emerged in 2010 escaped most people.

  • In my view such a convention must tackle not only the relationship between our four nations and devolution of power from the centre, but also electoral and Lords reform.

    Excellent: there’s nothing for killing the chances of something actually happening stone dead like giving it an impossibly wide remit.

    (And even in the situation it did manage to come up with something, precedent states that it would have to be put to a referendum of the whole UK, and we know from 2011 what the UK thinks of electoral reform, so trying any other proposals to electoral reform will ensure that the whole lot is rejected at the referendum stage).

  • The “AV” campaign became a referendum on “Do you like Nick Clegg?”,

    No it did not.

    It became a referendum on ‘Do you think the political system is so broken that you want to take a leap in the dark to a completely new system that will give totally unpredictable results but probably increase the chances of hung Parliaments in the future?’

    And the public said, ‘No, we’d rather stick with what we know and are used to than throw everything up in the air.’

    To say the UK electorate completely misunderstood the question and so decided it was abot Nick Clegg is incredibly condescending. It’s basically sayng that the electorate don’t agree with you so they must be stupid.

    No wonder they don’t vote for you, if you display your contempt for them so openly and without shame.

  • matt (Bristol) 23rd Sep '14 - 1:23pm

    Dav,

    The Tories did definitely run an anti-Clegg line; Labour MPs definitely shifted ground and lost enthusiasm for AV prior to the referendum, in part to deliberately distance themselves from Clegg and the Coaltion.

    OK, many people voted on the merits or out of fear of the unknown and to minimise this and blame other factors as the only reason for AV being rejected is indeed conspiracist.

    Buut to say that Clegg and the merits of coaltion politics as seen the the current Coalition and personailities in it, was not an issue during the AV referendum is daft. He was clearly an issue, and unfairly so.

  • Buut to say that Clegg and the merits of coaltion politics as seen the the current Coalition and personailities in it, was not an issue during the AV referendum is daft

    ‘Clegg’ and ‘the merits of coaltion politics ‘ are different issues, though. The British don’t like coalitions. They never have and they never will. If they voted against AV because they don’t want to make future coalitions more likely, that has nothing to do with Clegg and everything to do with their long-standing liking for strong, clearly accountable government over negotiations and compromise.

    Anyway, the point, as it relates to the original article, is that the British population are, rationally and sensibly, fundamentally loss averse and very sensitive to downside risk. They won’t vote for any radical change of the constitution unless the current situation is absolutely intolerable.

    If you set a committee the task of redesigning the entire British state from the ground up then even assuming it did manage to come out with one or more proposals, there is no way any such wholesale constitutional redesign would ever get the support of a referendum. It would simply be too much risk to change everything at once like that. The public would never accept it.

  • Eddie Sammon 23rd Sep '14 - 2:23pm

    I used to support a constitutional convention, but that was before I knew what I wanted. Now I want a nice retail offer of an English parliament with full Scottish powers, followed by regional assemblies. In the same manifesto.

    We have so much to sort out, from the Barnett formula, to the Lords, to possible voting reform, to checks on the monarchy, plus all the other things going on in the world that we need to sort out – ISIS, Boko Haram, economic stuff, women’s rights, everything, so I think the best thing to do is not to take on too much at once and stick to simple retail offers.

    A constitutional convention could work, but we would need to have a clear agenda, so it’s not simply a big chat. I still trust liberals to sort this out the most.

  • Eddie Sammon 23rd Sep '14 - 2:43pm

    By the way, I don’t mean to leave out Wales. They should get full Scottish powers too and a better deal on the Barnett formula. I wish we could strengthen our ties with Northern Ireland too, but that’s another issue and I’m quite weak on it.

    The priority needs to be sorting out a fair deal for England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Regional devolution is going to have to wait a bit and start with a commission on boundaries and powers, because we’ll be taking on too much if we try to sort that at the same time.

  • stuart moran 23rd Sep '14 - 2:48pm

    Eddie Sammon

    On the full English Parliament – do you propose that goes to a referendum? This has to be specifically put to the people surely?

    You are talking about creating an extra layer of politicians – perhaps two.

    UK Parliament->English Parliament->Regional Assembly->District Council->Town Council (or Unitary)

    Do you think that would be acceptable to the English voters? What voting system will it have – PR or FPTP?

    If a cross-party/society Constitutional Conventon doesn’t look at this then who will put together the proposals? An individual party?

    As to Dav’s comment – I do not see how the HoL cannot be discussed at the same time as the role of the UK Parliament will change greatly – I personally think they can be looked at at the same time as devolution but could be based on a vote in Parliament rather than being the subject of a referendum. The change in the role of the UK Parliament is part of a process begun in 97 and should be a point considered when voting whether to agree to devolve powers but should not be explicitly asked

  • Eddie Sammon 23rd Sep '14 - 3:08pm

    Hi Stuart, answers to your questions:

    1. No to a referendum on Eng. Parliament. We just need evidence of public support through polls.
    2. Only one extra layer of politicians, I don’t see the need for two layers of councils, so I would abolish one. I know next to nothing about this, so take my points in principle.
    3. FPTP for now, but review once it is up and running.
    4. I think it can be sorted in a meeting between the cabinet and the shadow cabinet.

    Thanks for your help explaining the different layers, I don’t understand local government properly (partly my fault).

  • David Evershed 23rd Sep '14 - 3:13pm

    Let’s take the example of Free Schools in England.

    1. Do we want the MP’s for Scottish constituencies to have a casting vote on whether there should be Free Schools in England or not, when English MPs have no say over the Scottish education system?

    2. Do we want different education systems in different regions of England with Free Schools in some and not in others?

    I suggest the answer to both is NO.

    So all that’s needed is for Westminster to arrange for only English MPs to vote on English laws. Simple, low cost solution.

  • stuart moran 23rd Sep '14 - 3:17pm

    Eddie

    1. Wow – completely unacceptable. If AV requires a referendum, the Scottish, Welsh and Irish assemblies had referenda then why not English devolution. Polls tell you nothing! Does that mean we can do away with elections as well. may be okay for you but to me that is completely unacceptable and such a Parliament would have no legitimacy in my eyes – I want a regional Government

    2. I agree we could abolish the district or town councils as I assume we will move all to unitary autorities – that means the Shires being hit most. A lot of unhappy Tory councillors. The unitaries would have two extra levels though. More politicans and what is the relationship between these three layers?

    3. I would vote no to FPTP – but then you are not letting me have a vote are you?

    4. Completely unacceptable – a stitch up between the Tories and Labour – no Lib Dems involved, no Greens, no UKIP, no public bodies.

    I get the feeling you haven’t really thought this view and these proposals would be completely unacceptable to me, fortunate I am not being allowed to have an opinion at any point in the process isn’t it?

  • stuart moran 23rd Sep '14 - 3:23pm

    David Evershed

    1. No free schools so a moot question! They are UK MPs voting on matters still addressed by the UK Parliament – the fact that there is not devolved English Parliament is not their problem. Until that power is devolved then they should vote on it.

    2. Why not? If education is devolved to a region then it is up to them. We already have different systems by council…didn’t you know that?

    Your solution is simplistic and cheap – it is also rubbish. I don’t want something so important based on something that is cheap – rather something that works and improves democratic engagment.

    Make proposals and put it to the people – see how you do….

  • Eddie Sammon 23rd Sep '14 - 3:27pm

    Hi Stuart, I would want the Eng parliament in a manifesto. I am not saying start to create it before 2015.

    I just think we need to start from scratch with the local government system. No to two extra layers.

    We can have a ref on PR once the new system is up and running, we can’t do too much at once.

    I think a meeting between the cabinet and the shadow cabinet is fine, it is only to discuss manifestos. If people want more power then they’ll have to get elected. If internal party bodies want to get involved or outsiders then they can lobby the cabinets or shadow cabinet.

    I have thought this through. You can lobby the Lib Dems, which is what we are basically doing here. I don’t want to make this more difficult that it needs to be, so I say let’s get on with sorting out a new deal between the four nations, then work on a new deal for the regions and local councils.

  • stuart moran 23rd Sep '14 - 3:34pm

    Eddie

    Manifesto’s are nowhere near detailed enough for this. You could have^’English self-governance’ in the manuifesto but all the details would not be there. manifesto pledges are not historically that robust either. Not good enough

    So you are also proposing changing council structures as well but no planning for any consultation

    You have not thought it through at all I would say – you didn’t even know how councils are structured!

    I totally reject all your ideas – there is not one I agree with.

    PS You do know that charities and public bodies are no longer allowed to ‘lobby’ on political subjects thanks to the current Govenment

  • Eddie Sammon 23rd Sep '14 - 3:48pm

    Stuart, I never said I wanted to change local council structures without a consultation, I specifically said I wanted a commission on this, which in other words is a consultation.

    I’m not talking to someone who is trying to accuse me of incompetence. You’ll have to find someone else to debate with.

  • “2. Do we want different education systems in different regions of England with Free Schools in some and not in others?”

    Why not? And FWIW we have different education systems in different parts of England with some areas still having Grammar schools.

  • stuart moran 23rd Sep '14 - 6:00pm

    Eddie

    In general I am not saying you are incompetent just that I disagree with your proposals strongly and that I resent your idea of not allowing me a vote.

    Following that you admit to not knowing about council structure and that your proposal will lead to two new layers of Government for the unitaries. Perhaps you could abolish a level of district but still you have more layers and some very unhappy councillors ( mainly Tory)

    Finally, once your inter Parliament is in place the Constitutional Convention would be irrelevant and they would never change. I am particularly interested about your idea for a referendum on PR at a later date……funny you don’t think the setting up of the Parliament itself needs one

  • Dav,

    I distinctly remember the No2AV mailshot having a picture of Nick Clegg with the fees pledge on the front.

  • Eddie Sammon 23rd Sep '14 - 7:42pm

    Hi Stuart, I am open to a referendum on an English parliament, it just didn’t spring to my mind as necessary as long as it was in the manifesto.

    Regards

  • paul barker 23rd Sep '14 - 8:22pm

    We certainly live in “Interesting Times”. There are rumours that some Labour figures think UKIP might win 2 Byelections in a fortnights time. We could go into the GE with both main Parties looking split & panic-stricken & with a genuine Popular movement demanding real change. Its a situation full of possibilities, both terrifying & hopeful.

  • Shirley Campbell 24th Sep '14 - 2:29am

    Linda, yes please, a Constitutional Convention, when, please. Devolved power to Scotland, Wales, Ireland (Northern Ireland) when, please! Abolition of the so-called unelected “monarchy” when, please. An English parliament, when, please. True Liberal representation when, please.

  • @Stuart Moran “we could abolish the district or town councils ”
    They are separate and different. Town Councils could also be parish Councils whereas District Councils could also be Borough Councils with the same powers. So there goes your credibility

  • Matthew Huntbach 24th Sep '14 - 9:58am

    Dav

    It became a referendum on ‘Do you think the political system is so broken that you want to take a leap in the dark to a completely new system that will give totally unpredictable results but probably increase the chances of hung Parliaments in the future?’

    And the public said, ‘No, we’d rather stick with what we know and are used to than throw everything up in the air.’

    Well, fine, so you make my point. When asked if they REALLY want to change the political system they have, the British people said “No”. They said they wanted a system which gives them the sort of governments we have now, which entrenches the two main parties in permanent rotation.

    So they should stop moaning. They had the chance to change things and they said “No, we’d rather stick with what we know and are used to”. They have what they voted for. We gave them the opportunity to change it, they wanted no change.

  • Robert Wootton 24th Sep '14 - 9:59am

    @ Linda Jack. Your email address was not recognised. So I will paste my letter here.

    Dear Linda,

    I do believe a there needs to be a debate about a constitution for the UK.
    However, this debate, I think, should be concerned with the rights, duties and responsibilities of the citizens for themselves and to the state. And vice versa, the rights, duties and responsibilities of the state/government to itself and to the citizens.

    In a secular society, there should be a personal relationship between the citizen and the state. The so-called West Lothian question is a nonsense. As a town councillor for Bideford, I hear complaints from Bideford councillors who sit on Torridge District Council how initiatives for Bideford are blocked by councillors from other areas in the district. We are citizens of one country; and one world.

    Policy decisions should be based the principles of freedom for the citizen to make their own choices and fairness in terms of economic and social justice and framed in terms of the protection and withdrawal of a citizen’s Human Rights (and Duties).

    Justice must be reciprocal.

  • Matthew Huntbach 24th Sep '14 - 10:11am

    Dav

    The British don’t like coalitions. They never have and they never will. If they voted against AV because they don’t want to make future coalitions more likely, that has nothing to do with Clegg and everything to do with their long-standing liking for strong, clearly accountable government over negotiations and compromise.

    Well, fine. So isn’t that what they’ve got now? Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats have rolled over and given in to the Tories, abandoned their own policies and principles and supported Tory ones, as we are often told here. So, the Liberal Democrats have given the British people just what you say they want: a strong, clearly accountable government. No negotiating and compromise, no instead LibDem MPs voting without question for Tory policies, so giving us a clear Tory government.

    You tell us that when people voted “No” in the AV referendum, they voted “No” because that’s what they want. They want the distortion that gives all power to one party even if that party got well under half the actual vote. So, when the current system in a bit of a fluky way just didn’t give an actual majority to one party, Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats remedied that by acting in a way that made it as if it had done just what you say the British people want so much, they gave the British people a government which was pure Tory in policy.

    So shouldn’t they be cheering on Nick Clegg for that? If what you say about what the British people want is true, then surely there should be no moaning about “propping up the Tories”. Instead, any moaning should come when Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats do insist on a bit of negotiation and compromise so that what comes up is not what the Tories really wanted. So, is this what is happening? Are we hearing all the time “dirty rotten Liberal Democrats, blocking the clear and accountable Tory policies that in May 2011 the British people voted, by two-to-one, to say they thought is what should have arisen from how they voted a year before”?

  • You tell us that when people voted “No” in the AV referendum, they voted “No” because that’s what they want. They want the distortion that gives all power to one party even if that party got well under half the actual vote.

    Yes. Because fundamentally they want to know who to blame.

    It’s not about liking what the government does, it’s about holding the government accountable for what it does.

    People don’t want a clear strong single-party government because they will then agree with everything that government does. They want a clear strong single-party government because if you have that then you can hold them accountable, and if you don’t like what they are doing it’s fairly easy to boot them out and put the other lot in (as happened in 1979, and in 1997).

    Coalitions make that messy. For a start it muddies the issue of blame. When you have two parties doing compromises and internal negotiations, how do you know who actually is responsible for the government; who is to be held accountable? Who, when it comes right down to it, has their head on the block? (In this country we like to know whose head will be on the block, have done since 1649).

    And secondly it makes the ability to boot them out much less sure. How do you boot out the current coalition, if you judge them to have failed, when there’s a possibility that even if you boot out the Tory part, the Lib Dem part might remain, just in coalition with Labour? And if you look at countries abroad with PR systems, you often end up with one or more parties, small or large, who always seem to end up being part of the governing coalition. So how do you hold them accountable and boot them out of office, when no matter what you do they always seem to creep back in?

    The British people voted ‘No’ to AV because they want to be able to hold their government to account, and to perform the fundamental action of democracy, which is to sack your leaders without having to have a civil war.

    They want, basically, to know who to blame.

    And they are blaming Cameron and Clegg jointly.

    The reason Clegg comes off the worst isn’t because of the coalition, it’s because of the personal-betrayal factor of having stood on a platform of ‘no more politics as usual’ and then as soon as he got into power turning out to be exactly the same as all the other politicians. So those who believed his pre-election lies about being somehow different to the rest are, justifiably, very very angry with him.

  • Stuart White 24th Sep '14 - 12:21pm

    Lib Dems might be interested in some articles at openDemocracy on the constitutional convention idea. Here is a link to one by Alan Renwick on different options for a constitutional convention:

    https://opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/alan-renwick/how-to-design-constitutional-convention-for-uk

  • Ewen Simpson 24th Sep '14 - 11:50pm

    As an Anglo Scot, with roots in Stroma & Dorset, I view this debate with somewhat of a jaundiced view. Nick, along with Ed & Dave, made a key promise to the voters domiciled in Scotland – not all Scots by they way – that saved the Union and must be kept at all costs. If there is any prevarication, then all three of the major UK Parties will suffer fromthe fallout and the SNP will dominate politics north of the Border. Having enacted these promises, we then have to move onto what system we should install in the rest of the UK. Dave’s idea that we should involve the English MP’s only on English laws is a ploy to immediately reduce Labour & Lib Dem influence at Westminster and must be resisted. The future of devolved Government for England and extention of the Welsh & Northern Ireland Assemblies must be thought through with great care. I throw in the following for England, whyt not have regional assemblies based on the Kingdoms that existed at the time of Alfred, such as Wessx, Mercia, Anglia etc. Just a thought !!

  • Clive Jones 27th Sep '14 - 2:50pm

    This is a very difficult situation which should not be rushed in a few weeks but must not take years to finalise. How about an English assembly elected by PR the same system as the Scottish Parliament. The Northern Ireland assembly and the Welsh assembly are also elected by PPC. The English parliament would have no more than 500 members and have the same powers as the new Scottish Parliament.

    A NEW federal Westminster parliament of 150 MP’s covering Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland and England.

    This gives the English what they appear to want at the same time it is cost neutral. So costs of extra government.

    Cameron gets his English Parliament which we have wanted for years. AND we get PR for England.

  • Clive Jones 27th Sep '14 - 3:00pm

    Apologises, a few typos in earlier post.

    This is a very difficult situation which should not be rushed in a few weeks but must not take years to finalise.

    How about an English assembly elected by PR using the same system as the Scottish Parliament. The Northern Ireland assembly and the Welsh assembly are also elected by PR. The NEW English parliament would have no more than 500 members and have the same powers as the new Scottish Parliament, it would sit at Westminster.

    A NEW federal Westminster parliament of 150 MP’s would be elected covering Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland and England. Preferably elected by PR.

    This gives the English what they appear to want at the same time it is cost neutral. So costs of extra government.

    We get an English Parliament which we have wanted for years. Cameron has to be happy with this. AND we get PR for England.

  • Cameron gets his English Parliament which we have wanted for years. AND we get PR for England

    And if you put that proposal to a referendum of the whole UK (as you would have to do, given precedent) do you think it would get a majority?

  • Devolution on demand as in our current policy would lead to a total, scrambled-up mess.

    The advantage of a constitutional convention is that it would reach beyond the deeply mistrusted political class. Yes, that’s you and me, and yes, the mood is unfair, but we have to work with it.

    Who would attend? How about anyone who wanted to locally, with local meetings electing delegates by STV and some provision for direct representation of, for example, the voluntary sector through CVSs?

    There is a danger it could drag on till the moment was lost, but equally, isn’t the mood for constitutional change already waning as people are distracted by other (legitimate and in some cases vital) issues like ISIS and airstrikes, or defections to UKIP? A convention could keep the subject on the boil.

    I seem to remember a constitutional convention in the USA was quite successful.

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