Paul Tyler writes… In defence of piecemeal

For years Liberal Democrats have made the case for comprehensive reform of our constitution. We seek a fully federal settlement for the United Kingdom; constitutionally guaranteed decentralisation; fair votes; a democratic second chamber; prerogative power curbed other than as expressly given by Parliament; inalienable human rights.

Across the parties, many of us signed up 26 years ago to Charter 88 to realise a full package of these aims. The Charter itself lamented that existing British “constitution…encourages a piecemeal approach to politics”. It called for a comprehensive new settlement.

Yet today we have to consider what advances have been achieved by ‘piecemeal’ reform. The Human Rights Act (vulnerable though it is) is a significant part of British life; freedom of information was established, and then expanded by the Coalition; there are fair votes in all elections save for the House of Commons and for English and Welsh local government; devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has begun the “equitable distribution of power between local, regional and national government”.

In the face of all these reforms, conservative reaction has been to resist and then, with snail-like reluctance, to retreat. Witness the hard fought, last ditch rear-guard actions of the hereditaries to the Blair government’s removal of much of their number in 1998/99. Their watch word was always as little as possible, as slowly as possible.

Yet now there is a new strategy, promoted especially enthusiastically by the ultra-conservatives to be found on the Labour benches in the Lords. Their tactic is to demand a comprehensive, all embracing Constitutional Convention, before ANY more modest individual improvements are to be agreed. For example, their argument goes, there should be no progress at all on the method by which members of the Lords get there until ALL other outstanding constitutional issues have been successfully addressed.

The Labour Leader in the Lords was at it again earlier this week, in responding to the statement on further devolution in England. Her plea for an end to incremental reform is a seductive excuse for ever extending delay.

Whatever consistent advocates of a comprehensive written constitution (and I am one) think, many of these more recent recruits to our cause have a destructive agenda: they simply hope to delay ALL reforms for as long as possible. For that reason, while we Lib Dems must support a Constitutional Convention too (and it is party policy), we must also be adamant in ensuring its remit and timetable are sufficiently tight.

And we should not kid ourselves that ‘piecemeal’ is always bad. For example, the extension of the franchise has always been a matter of successive incremental progress. The 2014 example of this – the inclusion of 16/17 year olds – is especially relevant. This year all the substantial progress towards Votes at 16 would have been vanquished if those who said nothing must be done until everything is done had had their way.

With an Electoral Commission report finding this week that turnout in the Scottish referendum was higher among 16-17 year olds than among the broader 18-34 cohort, the case for moving further has been strengthened immeasurably. So much so that David Cameron has made two concessions on the point just in this last month, first agreeing to our Liberal Democrat amendments to the Wales Bill which will allow Welsh 16 and 17 year olds to vote in a future referendum there, then again in relation to Scottish parliamentary and local elections.

Without our former Scotland Secretary, Michael Moore, having been willing to contemplate an extension just for the Scottish referendum, this progress would not have been made – piecemeal or otherwise. So on that thought, I wish all LDV readers a Happy Christmas and best wishes for an evolutionary New Year!

* Lord Tyler is the Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson for Political and Constitutional Reform.

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19 Comments

  • Eddie Sammon 19th Dec '14 - 7:25pm

    Happy Christmas to you too, but whilst being against piecemeal can be a delaying tactic, supporting piecemeal can also be a delaying tactic “we’ll tackle that problem once we’ve tackled this problem”.

    As far as I am aware you still support “devolution on demand”. Whilst this is the ultimate piece-meal solution, it also risks turning the UK constitution (unwritten or otherwise) into the Lib Dem organisational diagram.

    I think it is important not to take on too much in manifestos, so I support piecemeal, but there’s got to be a balance and not just abandoning planning in favour of incremental progress in all different directions.

  • This reads like another one of those “Let’s blame it all on Labour” excuses that the top of our party rolls out as a cover for the supreme failure to deliver the constitutional changes promised in the Coalition Agreement

    As one of those first signatories of Charter 88 all those years ago, the merits of “too little, too late, too slow” are lost on me.

    We still have tribal chieftains (hereditary peers) in the House of Lords.
    We still have the leaders of a minority religious group in the House of Lords .
    We have a Gilbert and Sullivan version of democracy in the House of Commons.
    Our Parliament is a ‘Palace’ set up as a Victorian Theme Park designed to the whims of Prince Albert, where people wander round in ludicrous uniforms carrying rods, maces and swords.

    I do not want to wait another 26 years for a few crumbs from the piecemeal table.
    I do not want wait another 350 years for a real radical shake-up of the Westminster Complacent Tendency.

    .

  • “With an Electoral Commission report finding this week that turnout in the Scottish referendum was higher among 16-17 year olds than among the broader 18-34 cohort, the case for moving further has been strengthened immeasurably.”

    So it’s not a case of whether young people are mature enough, it’s just if they decide to vote and can make it to the polling stations.

  • Malc wrote,

    “So it’s not a case of whether young people are mature enough,”

    (1) Would you be kind enough to supply us with a workable, objective definition of “mature enough”? Along with the method that should be employed to assess it?

    (2) I thought the the principle behind the franchise was that if one is subject to what the government does one should be entitled to elect it. What does it have to do with what you, I or Fred Smith might consider to be “mature”?

  • History suggests that we should never believe that the Tory’s will be happy to consider constitutional change but will only change when it becomes a political imperative. The history is long they opposed extending the franchise to Roman Catholics, opposes anti slave trade legislation, the 1833 reform bill, votes for women, reducing the age of women’s votes to 21 , reduction age of voting to 18 . What made us believe that they would willingly agree to proportional voting legislation or changes to the House of Lords.

  • It is significant that the only achieved progress that the article can point to is votes at 16 – a reform driven by and achieved by the Scottish Parliament and the SNP’s social democratic government, It certainly would never have happened if it had been left to Westminster. On constitutional reform, proportional representation or lords abolition, Westminster has shown itself to be unreformable even when Westminster’s three Amigo’s agree that the lords needs reform.

    Whether independence is won outright in a referendum or taken piecemeal power, by power in many stages, Scotland will achieve independence (in our country we call this piecemeal reform process “gradualism”) . When we do free ourselves from the suffocating conservative traditions of Westminster, we can show you what a fairer society with fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity, really looks like. And maybe when you see it you might want to copy some more of our ideas.

  • Sesenco

    ” (1) Would you be kind enough to supply us with a workable, objective definition of “mature enough”? Along with the method that should be employed to assess it?”

    “(2) I thought the the principle behind the franchise was that if one is subject to what the government does one should be entitled to elect it. What does it have to do with what you, I or Fred Smith might consider to be “mature”?”

    Society as a whole has to decide when young people are mature – or ready if you prefer – enough on a wide range of things not only voting. I’m not against 16 year olds having the vote, I don’t really have strong views on it one way or another, but I don’t think it should be decided on whether they are likely to vote or not. Do you think all children should be able to vote or is it just that you think people should be classed as an adult at an earlier age?

  • Al, thanks for your wonderfully condescending offer, but England will be better off looking at how federal countries like Germany or the US balance their regions against their heartlands and building something to suit, than in copying an overcentralised Scotland that has learned nothing from what that did to Westminster’s ability to govern outside the core.

    And regarding the original article, gradual piecemeal change is all very well and good, but it is boring, managerial and very, very slow. It is pragmatic to take whatever small steps can be taken at any given time, and credit to those who can see the opportunities and win them. But it is also important to have a vision that goes beyond the turd-polishing exercise that our constitutional reform agenda seems to have turned into.

  • T-J 20th Dec ’14 – 1:37am
    “. …..the turd-polishing exercise that our constitutional reform agenda seems to have turned into.”

    T-J, Until I read your comment I had not come across this job description for the Deputy Prime Minister.
    It is remarkably accurate.
    As the man who took personal responsibility for – ” the greatest constitutional reform since 1832 ” – to use his own words, Nick Clegg in his grandly named “Department of Constitutional Reform” has been polishing away for almost five years.
    It says something about the abilities of this ‘Deputy Chief Turd Polisher’ that he has delivered so little in all that time.

  • Denis Mollison 20th Dec '14 - 9:03am

    “Without our former Scotland Secretary, Michael Moore, having been willing to contemplate an extension just for the Scottish referendum, this progress would not have been made”

    Michael Moore does deserve credit for agreeing to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in the referendum, but his party deserves little credit. Support for votes at 16 was included in East Lothian’s referendum motion at the Inverness conference of March 2012, but was enthusiastically voted down despite my reminding delegates that it was long-standing party policy. The reason was clear and depressing: for too many Scottish Liberal Democrats, anything the hated SNP supported had to be opposed.

  • Denis Mollison 20th Dec '14 - 9:14am

    I do support Paul’s basic argument that reform is likely to come in steps. The significant opportunity in 2015 is the possibility of PR for local elections in England and Wales. This would bring them into line with Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as having intrinsic benefits – the Electoral Reform Society have good papers on their web pages explaining why Conservatives and Labour should welcome STV for local elections.

    As well as being good in itself, this reform would give electors in England and Wales experience of how STV works, which would – bearing in mind the ludicrous and ignorant arguments employed against AV – give it a much better chance of success when we eventually get a referendum on proportional representation for Westminster.

    I hope it will be a red line if we get to any negotiations in May. It may well be that the election results provide strong evidence of the need for PR: the percentages of votes and seats for the various parties are likely to be even more discordant than in previous elections. Are we prepared to make common cause with UKIP, the Greens and the Nationalists to argue for electoral reform?

  • @Dennis Mollison
    “As well as being good in itself, this reform would give electors in England and Wales experience of how STV works, which would – bearing in mind the ludicrous and ignorant arguments employed against AV – give it a much better chance of success when we eventually get a referendum on proportional representation for Westminster.”

    If Nick Clegg had accepted the Tories’ offer of an all-party commission on electoral reform instead of insisting on the AV referendum, there’s a good chance we’d have had a referendum on PR already, since the arguments in favour of PR are so powerful that it’s difficult to see how a commission could have rejected it in favour of something else.

    Ironically, some of the strongest arguments made against AV were put forward by the very people (e.g. Nick Clegg and the ERS) who would later have to promote AV during the referendum. No wonder the public didn’t buy it.

  • Ian Mollinson asks “What made us believe that they would willingly agree to proportional voting legislation or changes to the House of Lords?” Well the answer for the party is “Because Nick told us he was in charge of ‘the greatest constitutional reform since 1832’ and we should believe.” However, from the start many of us knew it was totally foolish to give everything the Tories wanted early in the coalition after which it would be impossible to get any of what they agreed to. But Nick believed and people gave him the benefit of the doubt, and a year later when he had been beaten up over AV another benefit of the doubt, and a year later another benefit of the doubt over NHS reform, and again over Secret Courts, and even after the incompetence of the Euro campaign another benefit of the doubt. Now he has dragged us down so far his supporters have to spin less than 1% in a by-election as somehow to be expected and no reason to do anything different.

    The man has failed dismally as a reformer, as a minister and as a leader. He has to go and go now.

  • Tony Greaves 20th Dec '14 - 7:24pm

    John Tilley – I’ve not seen too many swords recently (or perhaps I have stopped noticing them!) but there are rather a lot of big nasty guns on the doors. The question I always ask myself when I see them is – what are the rules for their use? In the unlikely event of a demo breaking through the barriers and rushing the Peers’ Entrance, what use would these huge heavy weapons be? Or would they just shoot everyone in sight including doddery old peers caught in the cross-fire across the House of Lords Car Park?

    Tony

  • Tony Greaves 20th Dec '14 - 7:40pm

    On the substantive issues here, I largely agree with my noble friend Paul. We need a clear party policy on where we want to get to (and it is astonishing that in spite of our obsession with constitutional issues for at last 50 years, we have not got such a clear party policy now – though Paul may disagree!) But we also need a series of clear and achievable changes which will move us towards our overall aims.

    STV for local elections in England has to be at the top of the list. (Together with open party lists for European elections and AV for mayors, and for police commissioners – if we can’t get them abolished -instead of the ludicrous SV system).

    Also at the top of the list must be HoL reform – not least because the present House, with nearly 800 active members, is becoming an impractical nonsense, and there is currently no prospect of any PM having the self-discipline to stop the continuing flood of newly appointed life peers.

    Regional devolution in England is now vital – but there is no consensus on what this means, either in England, or in the different parties including our own. “Devolution on demand” is just a cop-out. One of the first areas where devolution is obviously needed is in the North of England yet there is no consensus in the North about what it might mean of how to do it. And remember that the Scottish Convention took some ten years from gestation to the first election of the Scottish Parliament. So it will take time and a step=by=step evolutionary approach is probably unavoidable.

    And then there is the Commons. Who has any serious policies for reform of the Commons so it can hold the Government to account much more thoroughly and scrutinise legislation properly? Until this is sorted out, no-one dare make any serious changes to the Lords.

    Tony

  • Denis Mollison 21st Dec '14 - 8:56am

    @TonyGreaves Thanks for your thoughtful contribution, but NOT “open party lists for European elections”, please. This was proposed in the constitutional motion at a recent conference (York I think), and we (LDER mainly) managed to defeat it in favour of sticking with our long-term preference for STV. One of the arguments is that STV is already used for European elections for Northern Ireland.

    @severalcomments – it’s good to get replies, but could you check how my name is spelled, please …

    Denis Mollison

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