A radical vision of Commons reform

Paddy Ashdown tells Donald Macintyre why changing the electoral system is the only way to achieve a more democratic political process
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Paddy Ashdown has warned that British politics is in a "dangerous mess" and that the nation is "facing a crisis of democracy".

The leader of the Liberal Democrats, who is about to unveil proposals for far-reaching constitutional and electoral reform, told the Oxford Union last night that the emergence Sir James Goldsmith as a Ross Perot in the making was the latest sign yet of the dangerous "mess" in which British politics finds itself.

Mr Ashdown sees constitutional change as interconnected to the European debate and had clear messages for both the Tories and Labour when he spoke to the Independent. He suggested giving the House of Commons the right to vote to elect a Prime Minister in the event of a hung Parliament, instead of the current precedent of royal appointment.

The message for the Tories, as they prepare for their holy war against the Opposition's programme for constitutional change, was that the British constitution was neither an inviolable "museum piece" nor so fragile that it would be collapsed by change.

Struggles such as the one for women's votes were testament to that, he said. So too, though this was change "totally in the wrong direction", was the transformation of much of Britain into an "unelected quango state".

The message for Labour was: "For goodness sake get your act together. This is the best chance we have had probably had this century for modernising the British constitution . . . it is the precursor of all the things Labour wants to do, and in a different way we want to achieve."

Mr Ashdown had two distinct and related worries about Labour. The first was that Tony Blair's party has not yet grasped the importance of systemic change to the functions of government; he was unsure that constitutional reform had yet "entered the iron of its soul". He cited the poll tax as an example of what a government with the support of 40 per cent of the population can get wrong.

There was also a lesson from the poll tax of the need for welfare reform, which he argued could only be achieved with parties sharing power. Pro-PR figures such as Robin Cook and Jeff Rooker understood that; but, he said, "the jury's out" on whether others, including Tony Blair, yet did.

The second worry is muddle over the mechanics. Mr Ashdown does not believe that Labour plans to remove the right of hereditary peers to vote is more than a "half-hearted change" which will merely install the biggest quango in the land; and he detects signs of Labour panic about Scottish devolution - over the tax raising powers of the Scottish parliament, and over the so-called "West Lothian question" of Scottish MPs voting on English-only business.

But the bigger worry still was over proportional representation. Mr Ashdown welcomed Mr Blair's successful fight to retain Labour's commitment to a referendum on PR, though he grumbled about the Labour leader's refusal to say which side he will be on.

He will insist today that the referendum is early on in the next Parliament. If Mr Blair does back the change then it must be at a time when the government is popular and not doomed to lose. And secondly the new system must be in place before the next election.

On this point Mr Ashdown is refreshingly down to earth "Do you want the Tories to come back?" he asks Labour. But, says Mr Ashdown, if Labour wants the support of a third party then the change to the electoral system is absolutely vital.

Much of this was fairly familiar territory. But there was also an unfamiliar, far-reaching package of reform to be unveiled next Monday which would remove the Queen's residual potential role in the case of a hung Parliament.

Supposing, for example, John Major's Tory party became the biggest single party but fails to command a majority. Does the Queen grant him a dissolution and a second election? Does she send for Tony Blair? He would replace this with a Commons vote.

There were complexities here: would it be the Speaker who put successive proposals for a sustainable government to the Commons? Such a move would keep the monarch forever out of party politics.

The plan goes hand in hand with Mr Ashdown's idea for fixed-term Parliaments, topical now that the Government was waiting for the best moment to call an election. Instead of snap elections we would have the "constructive vote of confidence" in which an Opposition only brought down a government in a vote of confidence if it could assemble an alternative by trading with other parties.

For Mr Ashdown constitutional reform was the way to restore "depth" to British politics. Here he was almost apocalyptic. He said he had seen Irish politics turn from a "deep politics" to a "narrow thin crust" which can be easily subverted by a few extremists. He feared the same here.

By reconnecting British politics to a world outside we "deepen" once again the political system. "If power is the skin on the custard; if it rests with a few people at the top then that power is easily subverted by a weak prime minister who appeases a passing group of people who tweak it by the tail."

I asked Mr Ashdown whether he now saw a paradox that whereas the Liberal Democrats, in coalition with Labour, once looked like a guarantee that such a government was "safe", they were now guaranteeing the opposite: that it would embark on a road of sometimes daunting change. Mr Ashdown insisted his party was where it had always been.

Left was a term he rejected; radical one he did not: "You might argue that Labour's job is to keep the Government off balance and our job is to map out the programme for the next government."

He paused and then laughed as if appalled by his own boldness. But he does not resile from the judgement.

His desire to reconnect British politics took the discussion back to Sir James Goldsmith and the Euro-sceptics. As the billionaire businessman orchestrated the defiance of the Tory right-wingers in the Commons, Mr Ashdown that despite opinion polls showing voters' apathy on the subject, Sir James and his pounds 20m would make Europe the central issue at the next general election.

He warned all parties to be "well equipped for that" and criticised pro- European voices in British politics for not bespeaking out and championing the pro-European cause.

This problem had been compounded by the exclusion of the public from the debate about Europe. So far the discussion had been conducted in the "gilded palaces of Europe and through Commons mumbo-jumbo", Mr Ashdown said, and it was therefore scarcely surprising that "some rather ugly beasts were gathering at the edge of the campfire".

Court of St James, page 12

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