Political chaos and political reform

If you haven’t read the extracts from Anthony Seldon’s forthcoming book on Boris Johnson’s mismanagement of government, being serialised in the Times and Sunday Times since Saturday, you’re missing something that you can usefully quote next time you come up against a Tory candidate. Seldon is not a commentator who can be dismissed by the Right as a ‘leftie’ intellectual. Biographer of Margaret Thatcher, former vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, son of one of the founders of the Institute of Economic Affairs, he is a pillar of the conservative establishment. (Full disclosure: his mother canvassed for the Liberals in the Orpington by-election, and Michael Steed and I stayed there for a week.) The extracts quote from insiders who knew what was going on.

And it’s devastating. Chaotic, with an incompetent prime minister dependent on an adviser (Dominic Cummings) who despised him almost as much as he despised Parliament and the conventional rules of constitutional government, and with a new partner/wife with her own political views and expertise. It portrays inability to take clear decisions at the centre or to implement them through Departments, with an inbuilt tendency to bypass ministers and civil servants whenever possible and to prioritise presentation over substance. This was politics as a permanent campaign, rather than a recognition that government is complicated and unavoidably slow-moving.

The Conservatives campaigned in 2017 and 2019 on a platform of strong and stable single-party government, against what they portrayed as the chaos of coalition – by which they meant a Labour government dependent on the SNP. What they’ve inflicted on the UK is the chaos of single-party factionalism, compounded by dreadful leadership choices in both Johnson and Truss. Opinions on May and Sunak are a little less negative, but both have been hamstrung by internal conflicts within the parliamentary party between a dwindling bunch of pragmatists, a group of ambitious cynics and an ideological right. The defenestration of Raab suggests that the chaos will roll on to the 2024 election, likely to be postponed to the latest possible date by continuing squabbles between ‘realos’ and ‘fundamentalists’.

If you’ve time from your door-knocking, Ian Dunt’s new book, ‘How Westminster Works… and why it doesn’t’, provides a devastating analysis of the current over-centralised political system, to throw at the Tories (and Labour) activists you debate. His description of how probation was privatised, and how Westminster ignored the negative result, is a classic illustration of how our system misfunctions.

Labour’s position at present is that everything would be fine if we only had a change of government. They show little interest in changing the way Parliament works, ‘wasting’ time on reforming the rules of political behaviour, let alone changing the voting system. Gordon Brown’s lengthy 2022 report appears likely to be buried. Both in the Commons and the Lords, Labour was hesitant in its opposition to last year’s Elections Act, allowing the abolition of the preferential vote for mayors and limits of Electoral Commission autonomy to go through.

But we believe in constitutional change. And this provides an opportunity to argue for it, facing an electorate that is deeply disillusioned with the current system. The anger that Tories direct at ‘the liberal elite’ which they claim block their efforts to pull Britain towards a free market paradise partly reflects their recognition that they have failed to persuade the majority of voters, in spite of all their well-funded efforts. Opinion polls show that 49% of the British public trust the civil service, against 24% who trust the government. Polls also show that twice as many trust the BBC as the written press, despite all the anti-BBC articles in the Mail, Telegraph and Times. The public distrust Westminster, professional politicians and right-wing think tanks, and trust public service workers, regulators and judges much more.

We need some more detailed work on political reform, to set out a list of immediate changes that any new government should introduce, and of longer-term changes that any progressive government should set under way. There’s some high-quality work underway in universities and think tanks on this, on which we need to draw. The challenge is to convert it into messages that will make sense to voters on the doorstep. ‘We don’t just need a change of government. We need a change of system.’

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

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22 Comments

  • Steve Trevethan 24th Apr '23 - 1:00pm

    Thank you fro an interesting and important piece!

    Will it be read at H Q?

    Does H Q ever use L D V as an important resource?

    Does H Q have any deep longer term policies, such as governance reform?

    Are we ever more an oligarchy and ever less a democracy?

  • David Evans 24th Apr '23 - 1:28pm

    It is very saddening that William chooses to go down the old failed rabbit hole of constitutional reform many Lib Dems loved to go down, but finally had to accept always lead to electoral failure.

    ‘We don’t just need a change of government. We need a change of system.’

    To which the response of so many electors will be something like “Yadda. Yadda. What are you going to do about the economy, the NHS, Education? etc etc.

  • David Evans. Whatever we prioritise on the doorstep, now or at the General Election, it is difficult to argue against the Seldon/Wallace belief that we now have a Conservative government which is in hock to an internal faction (or factions) that has little enthusiasm for constitutional government per se. This is even more dangerous than Brexit (which was disastrous enough in itself) and William is right in saying we have an urgent need to sharpen up our ideas and policies on political reform – whatever we do with them!

  • I’m afraid I can’t agree with my friend David Evans. William, as always, makes some profoundly important points….. in particular when he says, ” There’s some high-quality work underway in universities and think tanks on this, on which we need to draw”.

    Back in the sixties, (when I first met William) one of the most valuable things the then Liberal Leader, Jo Grimond, did in order to inspire and revive Liberal fortunes, was to do precisely that. The then Liberal Party became for a time the cutting edge of radical ideas. A similar drive in much earlier years (sometimes via the now sadly gone Liberal Summer Schools) with such as Keynes, Beveridge and Rowntree produced long lasting ideas which benefited the whole of society including economic management, education, welfare improvement and the NHS.

    Merely to score tactical points about the individual faults of passing here today gone tomorrow Tory Ministers butters no long lasting parsnips. Today’s Leadership needs to listen to William.

  • William Wallace 24th Apr '23 - 6:37pm

    David Evans: are you not worried by the trashing of constitutional conventions by Boris Johnson etc., the creeping corruption in political appointments and finance, the unbalancing of electoral regulation by the Elections Act last year, the efforts to undermine the rule of law and rubbish the supreme court, the evidence of public disillusion with democratic politics, particularly among the young? Don’t take British democracy for granted, nor the continued union with Scotland and Northern Ireland. Public trust in British government is at an all-time low.

  • George Thomas 24th Apr '23 - 7:55pm

    James Ball, occasionally writes in The New European, recently wrote that each main party is offering representations of Thatcherism which was a political idea thought up greater than four decades ago (he discards Corbynism as representation of leftie politics pre-Thatcher).

    Other pundits have remarked that Starmer being willing to go low with attack ads means we’re likely to see most negative campaign in run-up to an election.

    The threat of negative campaigning, often punching down at minority communities, to end up with ideas 40 years past their best and, if we get it, constitutional change that doesn’t answer any of the questions needed rather aims to solidify power further. Well if the LD’s don’t make a splash at next GE then it may never be possible.

  • William Wallace 24th Apr '23 - 8:35pm

    Steve Trevethan/David Raw: I went to Cambridge this morning with our parliamentary researcher to talk to academics engaged in a major and critical study of how (badly) Britain is governed. The parliamentary party IS plugged into this. And of course the chaos of Conservative government is linked to waste in outsourcing contracts, reluctance to regulate water companies, holding down public sector salaries while paying outside consultants far larger sums. We have to explain the links to the public; many of them are already beginning to understand how corruption at the centre means poor services on the ground.

  • David Evans 25th Apr '23 - 3:59am

    Martin,

    While accepting totally your first paragraph totally – Indeed I have said so myself of numerous occasions on LDV – I am afraid your second paragraph is simply railing against reality. I can understand why you may not like to believe it, I don’t particularly like it either, but that doesn’t change facts.

    For the future of the party and our values, we need to persuade voters we have relevant ideas about things a substantial number of them consider important, and the proportion who regard constitutional reform as being in their top three issues is tiny.

    Majoring on constitutional reform will never be a vote winner for us. It may make some of us feel good about ourselves, but winning seats is much more important, and after Nick blew our one chance to get any sort of constitutional reform between 2010 and 2015, that has sunk that boat for several decades.

  • David Evans 25th Apr '23 - 4:13am

    William,

    Yes I am worried about all the things you mention, but what worries me most is that intelligent Lib Dems like yourself, still believe we can change things by majoring on an issue that barely registers on voters’ priorities when it comes to deciding who to vote for.

    I’m afraid it is not me pointing out facts that is the biggest example of taking British democracy for granted. It is people like you believing the best way to do anything about it is for us to ignore the reality of what influences people’s voting intention and go for it in an election campaign. That is the real example of taking it all for granted.

    By the next General election we need to find at least another ten percent on the opinion polls. In a great year the constitution will not give us one half of one percent.

  • Steve Trevethan 25th Apr '23 - 8:04am

    Might we have a range of deep, headline policies such as parliamentary reform coupled with the speedy development of a robust public sector so that no one goes hungry, dentistry is always available, there is a national transactions only bank and so on?

  • Steve Trevethan 25th Apr '23 - 8:08am

    P. S.
    A robust public sector would result in national and societal benefits by creating competition between the private and public sectors.

  • Mick Taylor 25th Apr '23 - 9:08am

    @David Evans. I agree with David Raw. I didn’t read William’s piece in the way you have. He suggested that our offer should include constitutional reform, not that it should be our sole offer. Of course we should put forward our solutions for the bread and butter issues of the day, but our narrative should be pointing out that that constitutional reform is necessary to make sure the bread and butter issues really get solved permanently. We only get this crass type of government because our electoral system doesn’t reflect what people vote for or want and because our system is the most centralised in Europe. It is hard to retain faith in a political system that doesn’t deliver for its voters and without reform, the siren voices attacking democracy will surely gain even more traction.

  • Chris Moore 25th Apr '23 - 9:40am

    Constitutional reform is an end-in-itself. And desirable.

    But having an elected H of L, STV for elections, etc will make no difference to bread and butter issues. You can find exactly the same issues in Spain France Italy Portugal etc etc etc. These European countries have a variety of political and electoral systems. PR in the vast majority, btw. And, of course, varying levels of corruption: generally more than in the UK.

    The economic problems facing most European countries are not caused by defective constitutional or electoral arrangements.

    Constitutional reform needs to be part of our offer; but we need to major on direct responses to the problems that are impacting people’s daily lives.

  • Nonconformistradical 25th Apr '23 - 10:44am

    “our narrative should be pointing out that that constitutional reform is necessary to make sure the bread and butter issues really get solved permanently.”
    Absolutely

  • Put the right electoral system in place and all those pesky cost-of-living issues will vanish permanently like the epiphenomena that they are.

  • Jason Connor 25th Apr '23 - 3:02pm

    I would agree with Chris that a change of electoral system, though laudable in itself, will not impact people’s concerns on the cost of living, health, mould and damp in social housing, unaffordable rents in the private housing sector, sewage in rivers, increasing energy bills without renewed government support etc. All these unaddressed issues emphasise the need for strong social liberal direction.

  • Chris Moore 25th Apr '23 - 5:45pm

    It would be great to be able to uproot corruption by a change of electoral system and arrangements for the H of L etc.

    Nearly all our European neighbours have PR and an elected second chamber. Levels of corruption in these countries vary widely. A few better. More worse. We are merely mediocre at corruption.

    The causes of corruption are multiple and reflect wider values in society. Attitudes to honesty, solidarity, citizenship and government itself are persistent and deeply engrained: change is extremely difficult. Levels of political corruption nearly always reflect levels of societal corruption.

    One point we can possibly all agree on is that corruption seems to be getting worse in the UK.

  • David Evans 27th Apr '23 - 1:00am

    Mick,

    Indeed William didn’t say it should be our sole offer, but he did say “We need some more detailed work on political reform, to set out a list of immediate changes that any new government should introduce, and of longer-term changes that any progressive government should set under way.”

    To which I would simply say “At 8% in the opinion polls and very limited resources, which is most important – having another new list of immediate changes and of longer terms changes for constitutional reform which might influence the vote of only a tiny proportion of voters or making sure we have sound proposals on the issues people actually ask us about?” Similarly, on your point that “constitutional reform is necessary to make sure the bread and butter issues really get solved permanently”, I would simply reply “Maybe six steps down the line, but Step 1 has to be Beating the Conservatives and restoring us to a position where our party is back to being really in contention with 25%+ in each May’s local elections is the first step”.

    The killer question is How many times when Lib Dems are out canvassing do they get a question about constitutional reform from an elector unless we prompt it first? For me with 40 years of experience of door knocking, I have been asked three times – and two of these were in the Referendum Campaign.

  • Peter Hirst 8th May '23 - 12:22pm

    Process has gone up the political agenda since Truss and Johnson. Now is the time to capitalise on this disaster and campaign for a full constitutional settlement between the governed and those govering. This needs to be codified or written into statute and overseen by a Constitutional Court. It needs to be delivered by a Citizens’ Assembly advised by a broad spectrum of experts.

  • David Evans 8th May '23 - 1:01pm

    Peter, I admire your optimism, but however much it means to you and other enthusiastic Lib Dems, it really isn’t a priority for 98% of the population. A citizen’s assembly with a broad spectrum of experts – Experts selected by who? Citizens selected how? How long will it deliberate? and what will happen to it afterwards? – It will be parked in the long grass.

    The only way to get constitutional progress is to win elections – first on councils, then MPs and then when you have enough MPs (I would estimate at least 50 or more likely 100), you might just have enough power to be able to push enough and get some progress.

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