Liberal Reformers (or, the revolution will be blogged)

What a week for British politics

Nearly a week ago now, I suggested that one of the party’s longer term aims on the way out of the expenses crisis should be to push the case for full electoral and constitutional reform. Would we ever, I asked, have a better chance than this?

At the time it seemed a bit of a long shot, even by my terminally optimistic standards, but a week is a long time in the political media. The expenses relevations, coming so suddenly and in such a concentrated form, are unmistakeably betraying the shape of rotten underpinnings. Everyone has quickly come to understand that this is about more than cleaning up the expenses system. It will be beautifully ironic if  reportage from the Telegraph, bastion of moderate conservatism, whose party of choice is a prime beneficiary of the current arrangements, turns out to be the catalyst for the biggest shake-up in the British constitutional settlement for three hundred years.

The reform idea has mushroomed everywhere and has needed nothing but the lightest of touches to keep the momentum going. Mark Thompson’s safe seat stats mash-up has turned up everywhere from Guido to the Guardian. Vernon Bogdanor is hardly ever off the radio and Nick Clegg had another decent PMQs on Wednesday in which he made a critical point – that a General Election now, although it is necessary, is not sufficient. It will only change the faces, not the system.

Like much of what he has said this past few weeks, that feels both right and relevant. Just look at 1997. That was supposed to be an election of change that swept away Tory sleaze – but now it turns out that some of the 1997 Labour intake have been among the most corrupt of the lot. Doing the same thing twice and expecting different results is one definition of madness.

What the papers say

A quick-round up, then, of all the comment on electoral and constitutional reform hurriedly offered up by our friends in the media – never have so many relied so suddenly on Wikipedia for so much. I say media, but actually the first, and in some ways still the boldest, article was Clegg’s own offering in the Observer. A little scrappy, but quintessentially radical, this piece called for an end to stuffy Westminster tradition (an old theme of Clegg’s), electoral reform and – gulp – a simple written constitution. This was a couple of days before he decided to become the first politician in modern times to call for the Speaker’s resignation. What’s next, Cleggy? Her Maj?

Well, at the time this still seemed like a shot in the wilderness. Soon after that, Channel 4 News sent me a Snowmail entitled “Isn’t this about more  than the Speaker?” Aha, someone gets it, says I to myself, and sure enough, someone else who got it had been bending Polly Toynbee’s ear. And Janet Street-Porter’s. The Telegraph’s front page on Wednesday spoke of “A very British Revolution” and the Guardian has crowned the whole business with its very own mini-series, emblazoned with the title “New Politics” in an exciting shade of fiery orange. Of the broadsheets, only Murdoch’s Times is still floundering in a stagnant sea of Esther Rantzenism.

There doesn’t seem to be much of a shape  yet to the debate, except that everybody is referring to how excited everybody else is about the same topic (much as I am now). Many are calling for PR as the default solution – including one such call on this blog.  Several apart from Clegg have mentioned a written constitution. Our Shirl, writing in the Independent, offers one of the clearest diagnoses I’ve read yet of the problems with the current parliamentary system (h/t The Sound of Gunfire).

The Guardian’s mini-series offers a positive cornucopia of food for thought – the over-mighty power of the party  whips, the undemocratic evil that is secondary legislation, the case for a healthy party system, reform of the  Lords and, er, the introduction of More Fun. In fact, once you open your eyes and really look at the state we’re in, it’s hard to know where to begin.

Are we content with this confusion of good intentions? Or do we want to shape them?

I think we, the liberal blogosphere, must choose somewhere to begin. We actually talk about this kind of stuff for kicks and always have. So it’s time to sum it all up. What might a written constitution look like? How might a convention to create it be chosen? How should the key institutions of parliament change? What would we do if we were starting from scratch? What are the relative merits of STV and PR? Anybody got any idea how we start to credibly clean up the expenses problem?

It’s time to rehearse all those points, those former fringe obsessions, as if we were about to do it for real, because there is a chance we just might be.

Much though I hate to interrupt my own reverie at this point, there is a difficulty with all this which I think Cobden pinpoints very well:

this is the most discredited parliament in three centuries. It has no mandate to impose a new political process on the people.

The context for this, it should be said, is Cobden’s fear that electoral reform will mean a “Lib-Lab” stitch-up, and I’d be astonished if that came to pass, but his above point is nonetheless a good one. It’s a chicken and egg question – should we call a General Election first to provide a fully mandated parliament and risk the winning party backing off from the reform agenda as quickly as Labour did in 1997? Or should we set something – something – in stone now, and what might that be?

What might the various components of this embryonic revolution look like, and how do we get from here to there?

Discuss. And if, as I hope, your comment turns into an article, send it to us.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • I agree with everything Millenium wrote in the blog link.

    It’s important to get all the new rules in place BEFORE the next General Election, otherwise we’ll have four or five more years of the old discredited system.

    And frankly, I don’t trust either Dave or Gordon to implement any changes decided if they win a majority in the next election under the present system.

  • More cajoling required. 17% in a snap poll this evening. 5 down from the last populus poll. Not the best of signs really.

  • They say turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, but for Gordon Brown, Christmas is coming, no matter what, by June 2010. Given that under FPTP, Labour is going to be banished to the outer wilderness and for a very, very, very long time, aren’t we likely to find that he undergoes a Damascene conversion to the benefits of PR in the next few months? Helping him along the way by means of a constitutional convention would be a good move and a way of getting proposals in stone before the election. If we could top that off with a referendum on a reform package to nail it into place, say in January next year, that would be ideal.

  • David Allen 21st May '09 - 7:14pm

    Why do I fear this will all just peter out? Maybe I’m remembering the Blair tactics. Vaguely promise the earth, string out negotiations for ages, wear down the enthusiasts, ultimately deliver mouse. (Oh ok, devolution was not a complete mouse, perhaps am being too cynical about our Tony?) Anyway, if we are stop Dave and Gordon successfully following the same tactics, we’ll need to be clever.

  • This party will never be as relavant as it is today, EVER AGAIN!!

    If the leadership fails to highlight that the LibDems have been pushing for MAJOR radical electoral reforms for such a long time, if Nick Clegg and the party fail to take leadership on this issue, our party will become irrelevant and will not be able to progress. There needs to be immediate calls by LibDem MPs from frontbench to back, for Proportional Representation, an elected upper house and the removal of the Queen as the head of state. If that doesn’t happen, there needs to be a reshuffle with a new leader.

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