Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Lords a’ leaping

Some quick and symbolic measures could go a long way to reviving Britain’s ailing democracy

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Despite Labour’s many existing reforms, the new leader will face significant challenges on the constitution. Some items are ‘unfinished business’, others the unintended consequences of previous measures. Additionally, pressures exist to do something about ‘trust’ and political disengagement. None of this is easy. Inaction to date is explained either by major political obstacles or lack of ready solutions. In part, the job is therefore to engage colleagues and the wider public in resolving difficult issues. But some immediate decisive steps could also demonstrate a change of direction and commitment to greater democratic openness.

The intractable problems include Lords reform, reform of the electoral system, and the consequences of devolution. On all three there are big principles at stake, resulting in major differences of view both within Labour and outside.

Given the 1997 promise to create a ‘more democratic and representative’ second chamber, Lords reform appears one of Tony Blair’s big failures. This is partly true, but focusing on one individual masks the major disagreement that exists. At its heart is the question of whether we want the Lords to be more powerful, with greater legitimacy to challenge government. Many are relaxed, or indeed enthusiastic, about this likely side-effect of creating elected members. Others fear it, and the risk to the Lords’ independent and expert ethos. Meanwhile the 1999 reform – which removed half the chamber’s members and balanced it politically – has already made it stronger, more confident and better respected. Though this has been compromised by the ‘cash for peerages’ affair.

On electoral reform, the referendum promised in 1997 has never happened. Proportional representation for the Commons would fundamentally change the culture of British politics, which is exactly what many of its proponents want. Others dislike the prospect of coalition government and damage to the ‘constituency link’. As with Lords reform there is no ready compromise – though the alternative vote would at least increase voter choice and ensure all MPs were elected on 50 per cent of the vote.

On devolution, the central problem is the ‘English question’. Following the north-east referendum regional government is stalled, but the Conservatives, and conservative press, are generating a sense of injustice among the English. Their favoured solution, ‘English votes on English laws’, is unworkable, however, and could create a government with a Commons majority unable to legislate for education or health. The obvious consequence is again coalitions, which the English don’t necessarily want. Ironically, Labour’s best hope may be the Tories winning more Scottish seats, which could help them rediscover their unionist instincts rather than acting like English nationalists. Gordon Brown has rightly emphasised the benefits of Britishness for us all, but more needs to be done.

These issues are difficult, but also interconnected. PR for the Commons would lessen the ‘West Lothian Question’ by reducing Labour’s over-representation in Scotland. It would also have repercussions for the Lords. Certain Lords reforms could likewise reduce territorial tensions. This suggests the need for something Labour has never had – a joined-up plan for a constitutional settlement. Overseas, such plans have been devised not by politicians but by the people. Establishing an elected constitutional convention would be bold, and face citizens with responsibility for thinking through the big, difficult issues.

This is one possibility for the first 100 days. But there are others which are easy and low-risk. One is formalising parliament’s war powers, which we know Brown supports. The cash for peerages controversy could be ended instantly if the prime minister handed control of political appointments to the independent Appointments Commission – requiring it to choose when appointments are made, and draw from party ‘long-lists’ to distribute seats in proportion to general election votes. This would neither need legislation nor compromise future reforms.

In the Commons, the prime minister could demonstrate new openness by, for example, indicating support for committees being able to move their own bills, as happens in the Scottish parliament. This would both democratise parliament and improve its links to the public. In government, a new ministerial code and commitment to rebuilding the strength of cabinet could have similar effects. Though this policy area is not easy, a change of style, and some quick and symbolic measures, could go a long way.

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Meg Russell

Dr Meg Russell is a senior research fellow at the Constitution Unit, University College London

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