Steve Richards: The people's questions deserve big answers

These are heady days for voters demanding a transformation in the way Britain is governed. But our political masters are the most reluctant revolutionaries – reformers can't let the pressure drop
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The Independent Online

Suddenly there is heady talk of a constitutional revolution. David Cameron seeks association with the revolutionary mood. Alan Johnson chooses to remind us of his support for electoral change. Gordon Brown protests that he was a radical reformer all along. Nick Clegg dares to wonder whether his time has come. The MPs' expenses saga has raised much bigger questions than whether an elected representative has the right to claim for a massage chair or a duck house.

How is it that a voting system delivers one party massive landslides with a relatively small percentage of the vote? How can a supposedly robust democracy depend on an unelected second chamber? Why is local democracy so puny and unresponsive? The questions deserve some big answers too.

Since 1997, the current government has been able to largely ignore the often sensible concerns of MPs because of its big majority. Its main concern was to keep a few newspapers on side. Prime ministers will only listen to other individuals, institutions or parties if they have the power or influence to make their lives more difficult, or have the right to act irrespective of prime ministerial wishes. I therefore hope that the current shapeless public anger leads to electoral reform for the Commons, an elected House of Lords and more robust local government, including elected mayors. I also hope parties choose from a wider range of potential candidates. This is a massive agenda and I am under no illusions about the difficulties that will arise if it is implemented. Until recently I was opposed to electoral reform and an elected House of Lords on the grounds that governing in an anti-politics culture was difficult enough already without adding obstacles.

But I am now convinced other pressures and voices need to influence governments, a much healthier alternative to supposedly mighty administrations wondering fearfully whether a newspaper proprietor approves of what they are doing.

Even so what happened in the mid-1990s should serve as a cautionary reminder that the current frenzied atmosphere may not lead very far. Tony Blair hailed constitutional reform as one of his great defining projects even though he was not personally interested in it. His passion was fuelled by the political context in which he felt he might need to form a government with the Liberal Democrats. In the 1997 election, Blair promised a referendum on electoral reform. After winning a landslide he lost interest in the referendum and for putting the case for a new voting system. The political context had changed. Later he told me it would have been "quixotic" to form closer ties with the Lib Dems after winning a landslide.

In Britain it is always the political context that determines the level of interest in reform. Tormented by speculation about when John Major would declare a general election, Neil Kinnock declared in favour of fixed-term parliaments when he was Leader of the Opposition. After Labour's fourth successive election defeat in 1992, Kinnock also publicly declared in favour of electoral reform. He reflected a growing tide of support for change in the Labour Party at the time. Blair was always sceptical, observing correctly that the tide was fuelled by defeat under the existing system. Once Labour learnt to win again, the tide faded. One of the reasons that electoral reform is popular again on the Labour side, although by no means the only one, is that the party appears to be heading for defeat under the first-past-the-post system.

Above all, though, it is the expenses scandal that has brought the constitutional debate to the surface again. Once more there is a case for caution. The two are not directly connected. It is possible, for example, that MPs elected under proportional representation might have responded to the generous second-home allowances in precisely the same way as the current parliament. The dodgy expenses claims must be dealt with through a new system of remuneration, transparency and external regulation. That will happen.

But will the race to shake up the entire system produce more dramatic consequences? David Cameron's speech yesterday suggests that he will be a cautious reformer. He said he would consider fixed-term parliaments, but made no pledge to take away the prime ministerial power to call an election. If he wins a decent majority, he will "consider" fixed-term parliaments for a second or two at most. It will not happen. Cameron is opposed to electoral reform and had nothing to say on the House of Lords. Mostly what he was trying to do in the speech is link existing Conservative policies to the current mood. In essence he plans to take powers away from the state and Europe and transfer them in various ways to "the people". To adapt John Prescott's phrase, he was delivering a traditional Tory message in a modern setting. His senior adviser Steve Hilton and the influential Shadow Cabinet member Oliver Letwin have given a lot of serious thought as to how a Conservative government will redistribute power. Some of their ideas might bring about significant change. But both of them were evangelists on this front before the expenses scandal.

The article in support of electoral reform by the Health Secretary, Alan Johnson, was in some ways more significant, at least in terms of timing. It reflects a new focus on the issue and indeed on Johnson. So far, though, the calls for change have come from the same familiar voices. There have been reports that Roy Hattersley is a new convert. That is not the case. He came out in favour of electoral reform several years ago. There is no bandwagon yet.

Political leaders in Britain are reluctant constitutional revolutionaries when they have the prospect of winning big majorities. It is just possible that the public mood and the outcome of the next election might force them to bring about very big changes. Let us hope so, but these external factors will count more than political will from the top.