The Independent View: Constitutional reform is back in fashion

ERS logoFor so long, those who care passionately about political reform have been told there are more important things to worry about – that tax, welfare and housing will always take precedence over the constitution and questions of process.

The Scottish independence referendum has almost put an end to that kind of talk. As the Liberal Democrats have always known, politics and the constitution fundamentally shape the collective decisions we make, and are therefore of the utmost importance. The referendum also undermined the old put-down that no one cares about constitutional reform. Try telling that to the 97% of Scots who registered to vote, or the 85% who went to the polls. When the stakes are high enough, people will get involved.

But given the fact that a referendum on the future of the country is very different from everyday politics, how can that energy be sustained? And how can the will to get involved be extended beyond Scotland to the rest of the UK? The challenge is to bring that passion for determining the future of the country into a UK-wide, citizen-led process for coming to a sustainable political settlement.

In the controlled chaos of the weeks after the referendum, such an ideal may seem a long way away. It certainly doesn’t help that the end of the referendum has coincided with the most tribal time in the political calendar. But in spite of the intense party politicking taking place over the English Question and associated devolutionary issues, there is a simple choice emerging. Do we choose piecemeal reform, or wholesale reform? Do we do a rushed, botched, job, or take the time to get it right? And is this going to be decided in a back-room deal away from prying eyes, or will the process be truly shaped and led by citizens?

David Laws has come down firmly on the right side of this choice by restating the Liberal Democrats’ whole-hearted support for a Constitutional Convention. This builds on Nick Clegg’s statement of intent shortly after the independence referendum. The Lib Dems, Labour, the Greens and UKIP have all now signed up to a considered, citizen-led process. There is just one notable absence in that list, but if the case is made well and forcefully, there is no reason why we can’t get a full house.

A Constitutional Convention is not about kicking these issues into the long grass – it should certainly not get in the way of the promises made to the Scottish people by the three main party leaders. It’s about making sure we get a lasting and legitimate settlement. Real citizen involvement means the outcome cannot be seen as yet another episode of the party-political soap opera. It means that all the difficulties of reaching agreement about where power should lie are laid out, chewed over and discussed in public. A Convention should reflect the inspiring conversations and debates which took place across Scotland in the run up to the independence referendum.

A successful Convention requires a defined purpose and remit. The independence referendum left us with clear questions about the location of power in the UK. Which powers should reside at which level of government? What level of power and control do citizens want to hold and how do they relate to each tier of government? Those are the questions which need answering, not every question under the constitutional sun.

However, a Convention should bring to the fore some of the issues with which Liberal Democrats, and the Electoral Reform Society for that matter, have long been concerned. How should people’s democratic wishes and party preferences be reflected in their representative institutions? What is the role of the House of Lords in a new constitutional settlement? And how do we ensure we get a political set-up with the legitimacy and sustainability that will inspire people’s renewed trust?

I hope the Liberal Democrats will take pride in the fact that so many of the issues with which the party has historically been associated are now, at last, at the top of the agenda. And I hope they will join me in pushing for a Constitutional Convention, not only to help make these reforms happen but to show a fresh approach to constitution-making which gives Britain a sound basis for tackling the challenges of the modern era.

* Katie Ghose is the Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society

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3 Comments

  • A first aspect of any convention must be to look at those attending: if they are not representative of the British people it is invalid. The convention must not be just a talking shop of metropolitan middle class white collar arts graduates with no experience of industry, business, the armed forces or rural life.

  • Shirley Campbell 7th Oct '14 - 12:37pm

    Katie, thank you for this article.

    I have just visited the Electoral Reform Society website and, since electoral reform is an issue that is close to my heart, I intend to apply for membership.

  • John Morrison 7th Oct '14 - 3:40pm

    I wrote a book in 2000 on constitutional reform under Tony Blair. That was 14 years ago and very little has happened since. When the Lib Dems went into government I thought that would change, but it didn’t. They naively failed to secure watertight assurances on Lords reform, which the Tory right blocked. And they foolishly agreed to a referendum on AV, a system they did not even support. It was duly lost. No wonder they talk so little about it at their conference, as their achievements since 2010 are zero. As the Scottish referendum debate has shown, there is a huge vacuum in UK politics for a pro-democracy movement. Unfortunately the Lib Dems aren’t currently equipped to lead it. The party has lost interest in how we are governed and now see it as a second or third rank issue. Voters will not get excited about a party whose central claim is to moderate the extremism of the other two. Let’s have a campaign for PR in local government and then (but only then) a revision of council tax bands and greater decentralisation. Without PR local devolution will simply hand more power to Labour and Conservative one-party states which abound in local government.

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