William Wallace writes: The Westminster system is broken; so how do we change it?

The Westminster model of politics and government is broken.  A change of prime minister will make little difference to the deep divisions within both our major parties, and the deterioration in the quality of policy-making.  A change of government can only make things a bit better, but sadly not that much.  We need a major set of changes in the framework of constitutional government.

That’s not at all easy, in spite of the polling evidence of popular disillusion with Westminster politics, particularly among young people, the decline in membership of all parties, growing discontent with government instability in the business world and painful awareness in Whitehall that British prestige and international influence is slipping.  Nor that unless we change our structure and methods of government, both Scotland and Northern Ireland will probably leave the UK within the next 10-15 years.  Keir Starmer, the most likely prime minister after the next election, is cautious, concerned to hold his fractious party together, looking forward to grasping the levers of central government without weakening the powers of No.10.

Labour, of course, is part of the problem.  Its leaders cling to the current political and electoral systems because they guarantee Labour a shot at power when our governing Conservatives fall apart.  They look across the Channel at what happened to social democratic parties in France, Italy and elsewhere and cling to a system with high barriers against alternative parties, holding in place two centrally-funded organizations which parachute their favoured candidates into seats across the country.

Yes, Labour constituency parties voted in favour of a more open system of voting.  But the party leadership doesn’t want to press that case, and (rightly in current circumstances) gives higher priority to effective government in the context of a national emergency, a war in eastern Europe and a global recession.  So we are going to have to work hard to persuade the incoming government, the commentariat and the wider public that rebuilding public trust in democracy, and strengthening the checks and balances that make for stable constitutional government – which Boris Johnson did so much to weaken – need to be part of the next government’s agenda.

We will have to work with friends across parties to make the case for political reform.  Yes, PR is an essential part of any reform, but we shouldn’t start with that if we want to win over the hesitant, but explain why it’s important to include it in any political reform package.  And we shouldn’t talk about ‘PR’, an offputting acronym: offer the choice between the Scottish and the Irish systems, both of which work and neither of which confuse their voters.

The Brexit Referendum was fought on the cry of restoring ‘parliamentary sovereignty’.  Since then Johnson and his Brexiteer supporters have pushed executive sovereignty against Parliament and the courts, arguing that an electoral majority gives government the right to pursue its preferred agenda without Commons or Lords amendment.  That doctrine also appeals to some in Labour’s leadership team: executive dominance, weak parliament.

We must work with our friends in the loose progressive alliance to push Labour to accept that restoring trust in British democracy and constitutional behaviour requires urgent change.  The first year after the next election should allow the new government to make some immediate changes: to put the ‘advisory’ bodies that oversee prime ministerial behaviour on a statutory basis, to restore the independence of the Electoral Commission, to tighten the rules on political finance, to shrink the numbers of ministerial appointments in the Commons (140 at present) and to strengthen further the authority of Commons committees.  Moving power away from ministers back to local government, transforming the Lords into an elected second chamber representing our nations and regions, and changing the voting system, should be achievable within a five-year term.  We need to have a list ready; but will Labour side with the Conservatives in resisting it?

 

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

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21 Comments

  • Michael Cole 21st Oct '22 - 7:08pm

    I agree with virtually all that you say, but I think you are being too generous when you say ” … the [Labour] party leadership doesn’t want to press that case, and (rightly in current circumstances) gives higher priority to effective government in the context of a national emergency, a war in eastern Europe and a global recession.” Starmer’s silence on this matter is, in my view, cynical and motivated by the very reasons that you provide in your third paragraph. In any case, how exactly does support for future electoral reform inhibit effective government ?

    But anyway, anyone who watched ‘Question Time’ last night would have seen the response of the studio audience. A young lady suggested that we not only need a General Election but also reform of the electoral system itself to embrace proportional representation. This was met by loud and enthusiastic applause by the vast majority of the audience.

  • Interesting read but two points –
    Firstly, your comment about the party membership of ‘all parties’ does not apply to the SNP as that party appears to have managed to retain over 120,000 members – amazing in a country of just over 5 million people.
    Secondly, you think Scotland and Northern Ireland may both leave the UK within 10 to 15 years. I think both will want to but I fear no UK Government will be willing to allow a democratic route that may result in that outcome. “Now is not the time” is likely to be the standard response to any request for a referendum.

  • Barry Lofty 21st Oct '22 - 8:02pm

    At my age I am unlikely to witness these important changes that are much needed in the way our political system works but pleased and somewhat reassured that there are like-minded people across the party’s, but realise that the Labour party need to be persuaded of the benefit these changes would make to way the way are governed.
    Also I was encouraged by Michael Cole’s account of the reaction of the Question Time audience regarding the reform of our voting system.

  • Insightful and to the point as ever.

  • Michael Cole 21st Oct '22 - 8:28pm
  • Chris Moore 21st Oct '22 - 9:18pm

    Oh dear, here we go again.

    A QT audience – grossly unrepresentative of the populace – clapped and now you want to focus the LD campaign on PR.

    Please go and read some serious research about where PR comes in the list of the electorate’s priorities.

    Please stop being psephologically naive.

  • Barry Lofty 21st Oct '22 - 9:47pm

    Oh come on there is no harm in a little optimism!!! We could all do with some at the moment!

  • Michael Cole 21st Oct '22 - 10:01pm

    Dear Chris Moore: In answer to your remarks:

    The QT audience is selected from all parties across the political spectrum. The BBC is not yet totally biased.

    Please point me to the “serious research about where PR comes in the list of the electorate’s priorities.”

    As for being “psephologically naive”. I am not naive at all. I trust my views are ‘evidence based’. Can you say the same ?

  • Yes, I agree with all the points made about changing “the framework of constitutional government”. The challenge is how to do it without preaching only to the choir.

    One solution might be to make It part of a broader challenge to the established order which is long overdue. The post-war Labour project unravelled in the Winter of Discontent, the Tory project has now experienced an even bigger collapse, that will, I believe, ultimately prove much worse than the 1970s. This time there is no North Sea oil bonanza coming to the rescue and forty years of Tory domination have done profound damage to society. The enquiries and committees of a sclerotic administration cannot deliver a functional economy; hunger stalks the land.

    Moreover, the external environment is changing a near lightspeed. 500 years of West European domination of the World is ending as is the American Empire plus we are probably at Peak Oil with no adequate replacement as yet.

    Some will find that scary, but actually it is a unique opportunity to remake the World into a better shape. A bright vision will transform politics even when only half-formed. That is, IMO, the proper context in which to reform the framework of government.

    The difficulty for LibDems is that their conventional approach of a bit more here and less there, all carefully measured, doesn’t cut it and never will. So, how do we sieze the moment?

  • Steve Trevethan 22nd Oct '22 - 7:16am
  • George Thomas 22nd Oct '22 - 8:43am

    My interpretation of Boris’ manifesto which won such a great majority was that it was based on slogans but there was no substance behind the slogans which allowed them to have free reign after the election. Starmer seems to be giving subtle nods to everyone that he’s on their side but again there is a lack of substance and, if as now expected, he is next Prime Minister we’re in a dangerous situation (again) where government can do whatever it wants without manifesto to ground it. Your article outlines hope that Starmer will be open to best ideas but i) the worst ideas will want his ear too and ii) we’re still moving towards presidential system which shouldn’t be the case.

    My hopes for the next government? That they find some solutions for growing list of issues UK faces going forward – we still haven’t come to terms with the neglect in “red wall” which saw people vote for Brexit with likes of Bradford and Wales ignored by HS2 and HS2 slowly running out of steam, but have added issues such as Brexit, delay in response to cost-of-living, delay in response to climate emergency, delay in response to ageing population to the list over the past 12 years plus – before they add to the list with self-inflicted mistakes.

    A question though, if Starmer doesn’t change the broken system you describe, how much closer are you to supporting Scottish independence?

  • William Wallace 22nd Oct '22 - 12:01pm

    George: another election win by the Conservatives would very probably lead to the break-up of the UK. I would deeply regret that (as a mongrel Englishman with Scottish roots, a child in London and another in Edinburgh), and suspect that many Scots would regret being governed long-term by the SNP. But if English nationalists run the UK, that’s where we will end up.

  • Paul Barker 22nd Oct '22 - 1:57pm

    I wonder if we have seen a shift in England to a new stable configuration of one large Party of permanent Government (Labour) & a bunch of small/medium Parties competing to be the Opposition. A similar shift happened very quickly in Scotland.

    This would increase the need for Electoral Reform & Devolution & perhaps make it easier for Labour to grant.

  • Nonconformistradical 22nd Oct '22 - 3:06pm

    @Paul Barker
    One large Party of permanent Government (Labour)? And you think that in that position they might grant some electoral reform?

    Isn’t it possible/likely that the bigger their majority of seats the less likely they might be to grant electoral reform?

  • Peter Hirst 22nd Oct '22 - 3:51pm

    I beg to disagree. Electoral reform however it is articulated is fundamental to altering British politics. I would be hesitant to implement other however worthy reforms without that. As part of a comprehensive codified constitution delivered by deliberative democracy would be ideal.

  • Nigel Jones 22nd Oct '22 - 6:24pm

    While agreeing that electoral reform is vital, I think most of the public do not feel that; more agree now that it would be good, but other things are more important to them. Hence Keir Starmer’s reluctance to campaign on it, which unfortunately could also give a reason when in power, to say they have no mandate to do it. The other vital ingredient was revealed by Boris’ behaviour; i.e. the huge power of the PM, so we absolutely need very soon some constitutional change to the way government operates. Without that we are in for more authoritarian narrowminded rule, which so many people find simple and attractive until it gets too far to change it.

  • >The Westminster system is broken; so how do we change it?
    One urgent step: vote down the Brexit Freedoms Bill – second reading tomorrow.
    This bill grants the Executive/government powers to repeal and change laws without Parliamentary scrutiny.

    Whilst this does repair the current system, voting down this bill does slow the Conservative supported descent into a banana republic.

  • While accepting that changing the way our politics works is needed, the *only* way to achieve this is to win more seats in parliament. Small parties promote electoral reform as a way to win more seats, and big parties will talk about it, but never *do* anything because that would undermine their grasp on power. To those who say “But Labour …” I say “AV Referendum 2011.” Likewise to “But SNP …” there is “Gaming AMS with the Greens, which could have been Alba if it hadn’t been led by Alex Salmond.”

    Expecting and waiting for others to help with PR has wasted decades.

    What we need to find is a way to make our party relevant to the voters on the issues they think are important. Sadly, our staid and deadly dull policy making process coupled with a bureaucratic and disdainful view of the importance of Conference and activists (except where we need them to win by-elections and council seats) means anything that could interesting, relevant and most important, timely gets suppressed at birth.

  • @David Evans. As usual, I agree with everything you say.

    Almost everyone I meet is appalled by the Westminster horror show and would welcome a sensible alternative, yet policymaking is controlled by a bureaucracy that has been consistently failing for ~35 years. Its “staid and deadly dull” approach is aimed mainly at achieving tactical electoral advantage rather than meeting the needs of the people and reminds me of the former Soviet ‘Nomenklatura’.

    With a FPTP system successful parties MUST be a ‘broad church’/’big tent’, which encompasses and responds respectfully to multiple strands of thought; whichever faction finds the zeitgeist and/or has the most effective leader takes the lead but must accommadate the range of opinion.

    So, Tories evolve policy by survival of the fittest’ while LibDem stay with ‘Intelligent design’ committees. That, approach has made the “Nasty Party” far and away the most successful party of the last 100 years. Shame about the ‘Nice Party’.

    It should be shooting fish in a barrel when so many are going to be cold and hungry this winter. For example, maybe I blinked and missed it, but I don’t remember any attacks on Truss’s market fundamentalist ‘cut tax for the very rich’ growth strategy even though it was roundly rejected by the market. Doh! Does anyone have a better idea? (Hint: YES).

    Perhaps WW could put some in touch to work out some independent thinking.

  • I believe that,
    for the next (final FPTP) UK election,
    reform minded activists and parties
    must focus solely on options for a combination of:

    1. Prior to the next (final FPTP) UK election,
    a Campaign for Reform (by all parties other than Con and Lab)
    must focus solely on options for
    a Tactical Voting arrangement to force a hung Commons
    by unilaterally ‘gifting’ Con/Lab marginals and/or Lab/Con marginals
    from the stronger of Con and Lab to the weaker of Con and Lab
    without any ‘whiff’ of the beneficiary party (i.e. Con or Lab) ‘returning the favour’.

    LD would be uniquely positioned
    with the ‘currently-un-productive’ elector power
    to ‘lead’ such an arrangement
    (i.e. ‘leading’ Reform, Green, SNP, and PC).

    2. Following the next (final FPTP) UK election,
    (i.e. in a hung Commons),
    a Campaign for Reform must focus solely
    on options for a Confidence and Supply arrangement
    with the least obstructive of Con or Lab;
    with control over the agenda for Constitutional Reform as the sole ‘red line’.

    SNP would be uniquely positioned
    with the ‘currently-un-productive’ seat power
    to ‘lead’ such an arrangement
    (i.e. ‘leading’ LD, Reform, Green, and PC).

    Others will have other ideas, but how do we get such propositions onto the LD agenda?
    As always, the devil is in the detail. How could we organise a forum to discuss such propositions in detail before the next election is sprung on us?

  • David Evans 26th Oct '22 - 7:27pm

    Tim Knight,

    I’m afraid your proposal is yet another example of Expecting and waiting for others to help with PR which too many Lib Dems have already wasted decades on. There is absolutely zero chance of it happening and Labour and the Tories would love us to do it (again).

    Political success comes from win then reform, it never happens that you get reform and then win.

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