The last general election underlined what a number of us had long been arguing: that Labour has lost too many of those who formed the progressive coalition which contributed to our landslide wins of 1997 and 2001. We now need to begin the job of bringing them back to Labour. Central to this will be revitalising our commitment to democratic renewal in Britain – one of the vital ingredients of Labour’s victory ten years ago.
Over the past decade, Labour has achieved more in the field of democratic reform than any other government in modern times. But despite this, as the Power Inquiry identified last year, Britain is suffering from a ‘democratic malaise’: voting seems irrelevant to increasing numbers of people and the membership of political parties has been haemorrhaging.
I believe that we now need, as Helena Kennedy has argued, to ‘rebalance the system towards the people’. We need, therefore, to adopt a twin approach: radically increasing the accountability of our democratic institutions, while at the same time pushing power downwards and outwards to the representative institutions closest to the people.
Earlier this week, in a speech to the New Local Government Network, I set out ten proposals for how we might achieve this:
First, we need to agree a new settlement between the executive and parliament. I agree with the Power Inquiry that we need to look again at where key powers lie between the executive and parliament. This needs to be accompanied by greater powers, independence and resources for select committees. As one of my predecessors as leader of the House of Commons, Robin Cook, argued: ‘Good scrutiny makes good government.’ I also believe that parliament should have greater powers to initiate legislation.
Second, we must complete Lords reform and create a democratically elected Senate. We must do this not just by removing the remaining hereditary peers, but also by creating a democratically elected Senate in place of a second chamber rooted in political patronage. The role of an elected Senate must be to provide independent scrutiny of legislation, not to challenge the primacy of the House of Commons. We must therefore ensure that Senators are elected for extended, staggered, time-limited terms to provide them with a distinctive independent mandate. And we must ensure that elections to the Senate coincide with the general election to emphasise its complementary not its competitive role.
Third, we need to ensure a more representative parliament. Although Labour now has twelve out of fifteen MPs from ethnic minorities, fifteen out of 641 is derisory. So is 126 women MPs, 97 of them Labour. I make no apologies for always being, and remaining, a robust advocate of all-women shortlists. While everybody would prefer an alternative, Labour’s experience of the 1997 and 2005 general election selections shows that there is none. In 2001 all-women short lists were dropped and the record was abysmal.
Fourth, we should introduce votes and automatic voter registration at sixteen. Sixteen year-olds are entitled to marry, leave school and home, take up full-time employment and join the armed forces. They should, therefore, be treated as full citizens – without qualification – when they become sixteen – including being given the right to vote and stand in elections. In conjunction with this reform, I believe that we should introduce automatic voter registration at sixteen, alongside the allocation of National Insurance numbers.
Fifth, we need to introduce a fairer voting system. A more representative parliament means one elected by fair votes. Because we must retain the individual constituency link, I am opposed to proportional representation. Nonetheless, to strengthen the mandate of our constituency MPs, and discourage votes from being wasted, we should introduce the Alternative Vote system for the House of Commons. This enables voters to rank candidates in order of preference instead of a first preference alone. It would mean that, as voting preferences transfer from candidates with the least support, the MP elected would have to attract majority support. This was the case with only 34 per cent of MPs at the last general election.
Sixth, we should introduce compulsory voting. I believe that we should make voting compulsory, like some other countries, Australia for example, do. Other civic duties – such as jury service or taxation – are accepted (if not always joyfully) by all of us as part of our duties as a citizen. Why should voting be any different, even if a positive abstention is a perfectly legitimate political act, and should be recognised as such through an option on the ballot paper to reject all candidates?
Seventh, we must strengthen local government. This means central government accepting a new role: steering, not rowing; becoming an ‘enabler’ rather than a domineering ‘enforcer’. Having established high national and local standards (such as for housing, elderly and child care), and having set a policy to secure vital strategic goals (such as renewable energy targets, or mental health provision), the centre must be prepared to let go.
But local government’s ability to respond to local needs and to innovate will be undermined for so long as central government exercises such a firm grip on town halls’ purse strings. Too much funding is earmarked for particular purposes before it even leaves Whitehall. We must be prepared to place more trust and power in the hands of local, democratically elected representatives who are far better placed than I and my cabinet colleagues to identify the priorities and meet the concerns of local communities.
Eighth, we need to encourage neighbourhood democracy. I have always believed that, wherever possible, power should be exercised by individuals and by the institutions closest to them. That’s why I have long advocated stronger neighbourhood democracy – so as power is devolved to local councils, it must also be devolved down again to individual neighbourhoods, with delegated budgets for the delivery of services in a way that best suits neighbourhood needs. There are a number of innovative models around the country from which to draw on good practice, however, and there should not be a uniform or rigid blueprint.
Ninth, we should promote English regional government. Tory demands for an English Parliament would balkanise the House of Commons, create first and second class MPs, and produce all sorts of other complex contradictions. The danger is that Westminster would quickly become for England only, promoting the very separatist pressures in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland which devolution has in practice neutered. But the English regions deserve more powers than the government offered in 2004. Campaigning in the North East I found the strongest negative was the cost of more politicians in a regional bureaucracy that had insufficient powers – nothing like London’s, still less Wales and certainly not Scotland. Without a structure of universal unitary local government (like in Wales) it was also hard to dispute the charge of adding an ‘extra layer of bureaucracy’. I remain in principle a supporter of English regional government, but with more resources and powers. And I also believe that this is a process which should develop organically and may not develop uniformly.
Finally, we need to look at ways to increase regional accountability to parliament. I am attracted to the idea of setting up powerful select committee style bodies for each English region. These would be able to debate issues specific to individual regions, and take evidence from the principal figures in RDAs and government departments, as well, of course, as local authority leaders. They should also meet in the regions themselves and not just at Westminster. Those like myself who still believe that some form of more direct democratic accountability is needed for the regions should, moreover, remember that it was MPs from Scotland and Wales who acted as the advocates of their nations’ interests and for devolution. English MPs could, and should, be empowered to fulfil a similar function with regards to their home regions.
In conclusion, I believe that over the past decade, we have broken the chains of centralisation which enslaved British democracy. But now we must go further. On the left, we have always believed that power does not belong to government; it belongs to the people. It is time we returned it to them. By making Westminster radically more accountable to those who send us there and committing ourselves to a fundamental shift of power to local government and local communities. Restoring trust in government begins with government showing that it trusts the people.
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