When Labour came to power in 1997 it brought in a radical programme of constitutional change, including devolution and the ending of the hereditary principle in the House of Lords. Ten years on there is a welcome new emphasis on constitutional issues within both the government and the party.
However, any constitutional change must be seen in the context of building trust in our democracy. This is a vitally important aim that Gordon Brown highlighted at the start of his leadership campaign. What arguments and ideas therefore should we put forward in order to help, not hinder, that rebuilding of trust?
In its 2005 election manifesto, Labour committed itself to further reform of the House of Lords and followed that up with a recent white paper containing much useful detail towards fulfilling the aim of a more democratic and representative second chamber.
Yet despite the white paper’s good provisions, opposition to an elected House of Lords will continue to be forcefully articulated both inside and outside parliament. The government between now and the next election will therefore need to make the case publicly and purposefully.
Put simply, the case is this: in a democracy the authority of parliament and the government derives from the electorate. The current composition of the House of Lords denies people any say or any sense of ownership House of Lords is an integral part of the legislative system and scrutinises the executive and government departments.
In addition to this fundamental democratic point, the government also needs to stress the other obvious benefits of election such as the fact that it automatically ensures representation across the whole of the country. The existing House of Lords membership is hopelessly regionally imbalanced. A recent study aiming to show the countrywide reach of members of the Lords in fact revealed the opposite. It showed that while 125 members had a definite connection to Greater London, there was only one from Merseyside, and that while there were 24 members from Sussex there were only three from Tyne and Wear.
The government will also need to challenge the oft-repeated mantra that an elected House of Lords will automatically demand, and get, new powers. There is in fact already an impressive consensus about the powers of the House of Lords and in any case there is no second chamber in the democratic world that can unilaterally grant itself new powers. Powers can only be conferred by a positive vote in the primary chamber – indeed in many countries it has to be by a two-thirds weighted majority.
Turning to the devolution of power within England, it is likely there will continue to be keen interest in strengthening local and city authorities. However, the crushing defeat in the north-east referendum is likely to make further regional devolution in England more problematic. Yet the problems and issues that elected regional assemblies were supposed to address continue unabated in the north-east and other regions.
Given that elected regional assemblies are very unlikely to resurface in the short term, what other forms of public scrutiny of regional bodies should the government envisage? First, changes could take place within each region to better highlight regional issues and, second, further changes could be made to parliamentary and government structures to more adequately reflect regional concerns.
We could, for example, organise public sessions within regions where the heads of agencies and government ministers could present their regional plans and respond to questions. There could also be regional consultations on relevant white papers and bills.
In parliament, Westminster Hall could be used for regular ‘State of the Region’ debates and parliament’s committee structures could be revisited to give regional issues more prominence.
The current appetite for constitutional change provides real opportunities and if such ideas can be translated into practical results we can both improve the quality of our democracy and enhance trust in the government. These are goals that are well worth achieving.
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