Steve Richards: This farce of constitutional change

Opportunities for reform only appear at a parliament's start, not at its end
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The Independent Online

There has always been something silly in the government's approach to the otherwise earnest topic of constitutional reform, as if Monty Python's Flying Circus had played an advisory role. In the beginning we had the slightly ridiculous 'Abolition of hereditary peers (except for a few of them) bill'. We also got the early "historic" Prime Ministerial pledge to hold a referendum on electoral reform, which never took place, not least because the Prime Minister did not beleive in electoral reform. There were several silly attempts to make the House of Lords more democratic under Tony Blair, the silliness exemplified by the fact that Blair was also opposed to any form of elected Lords.

I could go on, but let us fast forward to the latest Constitutional Reform bill published yesterday. This was a slightly silly event on lots of different levels as well as being worthy in some of its limited reformist objectives too. The main absurdity was the timing. Gordon Brown had hoped that constitutional reform would define the early phase of his leadership in the way that the independence of the Bank of England sealed his early reputation as a Chancellor who could be trusted. His first big Prime Ministerial statement two years ago put forward some of the proposals in yesterday's bill.

The long gap that followed tells us much about his chaotic premiership. After the non-election in the autumn of 2007 and the series of crises that followed, Brown became diverted. His antennae were still sharp enough to realise that the issue of 'trust' had suddenly become so overwhelming in ways he had not anticipated that it could not be addressed by a rag bag of constitutional changes. He lost interest.

Yesterday some of the original proposals reappeared again. But it is too late. A general election moves into view. The scope for any significant constitutional reform is painfully narrow. Opportunities for substantial reform arise only at the beginning of a parliament after an authority enhancing election victory or at the start of a new Prime Minister's rule. Brown could have made big changes in 2007 but chose not to do so.

A sign of his caution is that Jack Straw leads the incremental charge once more. Straw is a constitutional conservative and yet has been at the heart of the government's attempts to reform the constitution for more than a decade. The first sign that Blair's evangelical oratory passion on constitutional change did not amount to very much came when he asked Straw to manage virtually every element of the agenda. From Freedom of Information to Lords' reform Straw was the pivotal figure, the great reformer opposed to reform.

In fairness, Straw is more interesting than his reputation suggests. He is a radical, in a very limited and a rather counter-intuitive way. He is a parliamentary romantic. He loves the Commons, fights for it to have more powers against the executive, despairs that its proceedings are not reported properly and always takes it seriously. He deserves considerable credit for taking such an unfashionable view. I remember watching him guide the Freedom of Information Bill through the Commons late at night over a series of sessions. It was as if he was leading a seminar, engaging with all the critics and clearly enjoying the cut and thrust of debate.

But he is also an unyielding advocate of the idea that single party governments should be able to govern, which is why he is opposed to proportional representation, is a sceptic on an elected House of Lords and watered down the original plans for Freedom of Information, although not to the extent that he prevented the Act from causing its creative and sometimes destructive havoc.

Yesterday he unveiled a curious mish- mash of unrelated proposals, more a tidying up exercise on a range of fronts, the equivalent of releasing out-takes from an old album. Parliament acquires a few more powers over the executive and the Prime Minister becomes a little more constrained whether in the power to make judicial appointments or to go to war (Straw pressed hard for a vote before Iraq. I doubt if there would have been such a vote without his persistence). Those hereditary peers who remained in place after their near abolition will not be replaced. Lords who are guilty of misconduct will be expelled.

Government insiders also point out that quite a lot has almost happened already with last summer's white paper on the Lords, in which a near consensus was formed that at least 80 per cent would be elected. I would not be surprised if this becomes a draft bill in the autumn, with the proposal forming (again) part of Labour's manifesto: more silliness, a daft draft bill, which would disappear into the post-election void.

Blair liked the idea of admiring Roy Jenkins, a figure whose career from the mid 1970s was genuinely about changing political landscapes, although Jenkins' attempts to change Britain's relationship with Europe and to break the mould of politics both failed. Blair was a more conservative politician compared with Jenkins, fearful of change. Brown has read more books on what it is to be British, as defined partly by its constitutional arrangements, than any Prime Minister for decades. But he has not taken any risks on the constitution either.

Instead there is a lot of tinkering. There will be no electoral reform, no elected Lords and no great revival of local government. The time for really big changes has passed and will only come to the fore if there is a hung parliament after the election. David Cameron shows the same ambivalence to constitutional reform as Blair did in opposition, theoretically positive until you take a close look at the small print. He is even more openly opposed to electoral reform; 1997 was the time to act.

Now, some ministers despair privately, is not the time for very much at all. Some suggest that if Labour can narrow the Tories' lead to 10 per cent by the autumn it would be much the best bet to call an election and end this period of paralysing despondency. New Labour was scared of change when it was thirty points ahead in the polls. No wonder under such gloomy circumstances a burst of complex, risky, energy-draining but necessary constitutional reform is kicked once more into the long grass.