The coalition agreement: political reform

Welcome to the sixteenth in a series of posts going through the full coalition agreement section by section. You can read the full coalition document here.

The political reform section of the coalition document is the second longest in the whole agreement, beaten for length only by the NHS section. By now the headlines from this section are very familiar:

  • Fixed-term Parliaments
  • A referendum on the alternative vote
  • The ability for voters to force an MP to face a special by-election if they have been found guilty of serious wrongdoing (“recall”)
  • A “wholly or mainly” elected House of Lords, using proportional representation
  • Any petition that gets 100,000 signatures will get a formal debate in Parliament
  • Implement the Calman Commission for Scotland (an important factor in winning the support many Scottish Liberal Democrats for the coalition)
  • A referendum on further Welsh devolution

This list may be familiar, even wearily familiar, to those who have read policy papers, motions, speeches or pamphlets over the years calling for major political reform. But this isn’t just a wish-list; it’s a list of what the government is getting on and doing.

Some of the details in this section have attracted controversy (most notably the 55% threshold for fixed-term Parliaments and the plans to create more peers ahead of reform of the Lords) though there are also many other welcome details, including:

  • Implementing the Wright Committee plans for reform of the business of Parliament – already well under way, and crucially so because they involve the government ceding powers to MPs. The longer any government is in power, the less likely that is to happen.
  • Stopping MPs claiming Parliamentary privilege to avoid prosecution for wrongdoing. (This is the defence some Labour MPs accused of expense abuses are trying to use.)
  • A new “public reading stage” for legislation, giving the public much more opportunity to comment on the detail of proposed legislation.
  • Extra support for people with disabilities who wish to become MPs, councillors or other elected officials.

Residents are also due to get the power to call a referendum on any local issue and to veto “excessive” council tax increases, whilst firms will be able to block any proposals to implement supplementary business rates. In this, the proposals mirror a wider pattern through the document of being willing to devolve power but often preferring to the give that power to people or bodies other than local councils and to mix reduce rules for local government with also putting in some new restrictions (and with the freezing of council tax in England yet also reducing ring fencing of funding).

Also in this section is a promise to fund 200 all-postal primaries during the Parliament, “targeted at seats which have not changed hands for many years. These funds will be allocated to all political parties with seats in Parliament that they take up [ie not Sinn Fein], in proportion to their share of the total vote in the last genera election”. I’m rather ambivalent about primaries, however this proposal can’t be faulted for its ambition in giving the idea a very thorough try-out and the focus on opening up politics in traditionally safe seats is a sensible one.

There are also some curious details, such as the speeding up the move to individual voter registration. That’s a welcome move, but it’s surprising that it should have rated so highly as to have made it in to the coalition document. Plus we have the near-obligatory promises to cut perks and bureaucracy, improve the civil service, run departments better, keep the peace in Northern Ireland and to make MP pensions less generous.

Finally, the ‘West Lothian’ question (should, for example, Scottish MPs in Westminster get to vote on laws that only apply to England?) gets a commission. As this is a question that has been around since Scottish devolution was put to a referendum in the 1970s, setting up a commission does have the feel of “Bugger, we don’t know what to do on this” about it.

That aside, the proposals in this section do get to grips with numerous substantive issues and should make our government and democracy much healthier by the time of the next general election.

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  • Andrea Gill 3rd Jun '10 - 12:34pm

    Nick Clegg has a lot on his plate!

  • @Andrea, yes, but I think he was asking for that when he got himself elected.

  • Paul McKeown 3rd Jun '10 - 3:50pm

    Perhaps the mods might like to obtain a transcript of the speech given by Baroness Falkner of Margravine, seconding the motion of thanks to the Queen, which she reminded the Lords was the first time that a Liberal had done this in 96 years! See She reminded the Lords that Liberals were used to playing a long political game (with a backhander to David Steel) and had much still to finish from the governments of 1910 and 1914, including reform of the Lords…

  • I don’t think what is being called “recall” by British politicians at the moment bears much resemblance to the recall systems used elsewhere in the world.

    What is proposed is that if an MPs is found guilty of wrongdoing (by who and according to what criteria?) voters can collect signatures and force a by-election.

    In other places that use recall voters don’t need permission from an ethics quango to use the procedure. And a recall vote means a referendum to remove the politician. Only if the politician is recalled is there then a by-election.

    If an ethics body has found an MP guilty of wrongdoing I don’t see why you can’t have an automatic by-election to let voters decide on the matter. Under the system that is proposed the requirement of signatures seems redundant.

    I’m also worried about what would happen if a politician was declared corrupt by an ethics body but then won the resulting by-election anyway, perhaps on less than 50% of the vote. Wouldn’t that undermine confidence in politics even further?

  • “Any petition that gets 100,000 signatures will get a formal debate in Parliament”

    Funny, I seem to remember that when a system like this was proposed for the European Parliament as part of the Lisbon Treaty it was condemned by Tories as a toothless procedure and not meaningful democracy.

  • Looks like a very decent list of some badly needed changes to me.

  • Michael Seymour 4th Jun '10 - 8:41am

    I did not hear either David Cameron or Nic Clegg condemn the actions of the act of piracy and murder by israelis in the recent attack on the high seas by Israeli commandos on an unarmed, peaceful, aid ship.

    Did I miss it?

  • Andrea Gill 4th Jun '10 - 8:48am

    @RCM – Indeed but he must surely be pinching himself still every morning he wakes up! 🙂

  • Andrea Gill 4th Jun '10 - 8:51am

    @Michael – No because they rightly don’t condemn something they don’t have enough information on… They both said they wanted the blockade ended but it just wouldn’t be right to get all jumped-up and aggressive when you don’t have the actual facts. That kind of “thinking” took us into an illegal war on Iraq for crying out loud!

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