Steve Richards: Would we really accept a genuine political revolution?

It is in the Labour Party's self-interest to advance a radical programme of change

Share
Related Topics

Suddenly advocates of sweeping constitutional reform have a wide and responsive audience. This is quite a novelty, almost a revolution in itself. Until a few weeks ago only a few devotees got really excited about changing the way politics worked. Now a previously arid policy area has the potential to strike a chord like never before.

Tentatively a wider revolution has started. Over the last few days leaders have declared that local parties must be the final arbiters of their MPs' fates. They will not intervene if some are kicked out. Deselection of MPs by local parties is the new fashion. Gordon Brown and David Cameron calculate that they gain strength in paying homage to the power of their activists over MPs.

I can hardly believe I am witnessing such a reversal of the old orthodoxy. In the early 1980s Tony Benn led a campaign in which he called for local parties to have the right to remove MPs. At the time the political and media establishments railed against him. Benn was dismissed on the grounds that MPs should be freed from the reins of their activists. Labour Party leaders were told to get a grip on their activists as indeed were Tory leaders from the late 1990s. Now Brown and Cameron have become extreme Bennites, urging local parties to deselect MPs.

Or rather they have become confused Bennites. They turn to local parties and at the same time they are busy acting themselves, taking away the whip or forcing through some premature retirements.

The confusion and the outbreak of local party assertiveness over errant MPs are signs that politics is in a state of flux. The dramatic removal of the Speaker is another. What will happen next? There are risks and also astonishing opportunities when voters rage at a political system.

The main risk is that the rare chance for substantial change becomes trivialised. David Cameron is doing his duty as a Leader of the Opposition well ahead in the polls in calling for an early election. Who would not do so in his position? But even some of his advisers worry that he looks a little opportunistic amidst a crisis that demands much more than the usual banter about the need for a change of government.

A silly, stale row over election timing is not the way the arguments should be moving. At the moment the stars of an election campaign would be Esther Rantzen, Martin Bell, Jordan and UKIP (watch what happens in the European elections next month). The political crisis and indeed the economic one deserve something bigger than that.

Gordon Brown's response to the calls for an election, though, was highly revealing and ominous. In an interview on Wednesday he warned that an election would cause chaos. It was a fascinating remark. No wonder Cameron leapt on it. Brown has always had something of a phobia about elections and their potential for chaos. Famously he did not stand against Tony Blair in 1994, partly out of fear that such a move would expose the frailty of the embryonic new Labour project. In 2007 he went out of his way to ensure there was a "smooth transition" after Tony Blair's departure, code for a desperate desire to avoid an internal election.

The anti-election caricature can be taken too far. Brown has been fighting elections of one sort or another since the age of 11 and has been the architect of Labour's campaigns since 1997. But that term "chaos" reveals a deep fear of losing control of an agenda and the media that can happen in the midst of elections.

It can also happen when constitutional reform moves centre-stage. One of the myths of the current situation is that Downing Street is in a bunker mentality. Brown and his advisers spend more time than is healthy reading the newspapers, blogs, internal polls and focus groups. They know how angry the voters are. From within No 10 some are keen for a substantial response, beyond addressing the immediate issues of expenses and future regulation.

One pointed out to me how inaccessible voters found the terminology of parliament, with its early day motions and substantial motions. There is quite a lot of talk in Downing Street and within the cabinet of an opportunity for a really big package of reforms. But as one such advocate put it to me, "Gordon would have to accept there is a danger he would lose control". In other words, this is a sequence that could become chaotic and we know that Brown fears chaos.

Brown is more interested in constitutional reform than recent Prime Ministers but within strict limits. He wants to control the outcome of the debate and still be fully in charge as a Prime Minister once incremental changes have been implemented. His temperament and 1980s political upbringing make him fearful of chaos.

Caution may remain a determining factor for Brown and Cameron may not want to act in ways that curb his room for manoeuvre if he wins the election. That is the risk. Politics is in a state of flux at an inconvenient moment when an election moves closer. Inevitably every leader's move is made with that in mind.

Still opportunities for radical change cannot be scheduled in advance. They tend to arise unexpectedly. I can understand why Cameron might not want to opt for a constitutional revolution at this point, but it seems to me it is in Labour's self-interest to advance a radical programme of change. Brown should have done so when he became Prime Minister and is lucky to have cover to give it another go. If he were daring, he would offer a referendum on electoral reform at the election and promise to campaign for a "Yes" vote while pledge that the second chamber would be elected. There is no way voters will accept most of the current House of Commons being awarded places in the Lords so the whole place might as well be reformed.

There should be fewer MPs with more chance to hold the government to account. The parties must seek a much wider range of candidates. In some constituencies it is easier to fly to the Moon than break through the barriers required to be an MP. As a result there are too many mediocre backbenchers on both sides who got there as a result of local stitch-ups.

I have become a convert to such sweeping changes in recent years having watched closely a new Labour government with huge majorities worry only about the media. It would have been a much better government if other pressures had applied. But while I suspect such reforms would now be popular as a way of "changing the system", the media and the wider electorate would have to change too.

Over recent years "strong leaders" have been the fashion. A more robust parliament with greater legitimacy would mean Prime Ministers having to twist and turn, facing defeats over policy areas on a regular basis. Will we accept that they are not "weak" but part of a new culture where bodies other than the media hold them to account? The potential revolution presents challenges to the elected and the electors too. Are they and we up for it?

s.richards@independent.co.uk

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 2nd / 3rd Line IT Support Engineer - IT Managed Services

£30000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company are loo...

Recruitment Genius: Hotel Assistant Manager

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This hotel in Chadderton is a p...

Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

Recruitment Genius: Production Administrator

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading and fastest ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

'You’re just jealous', and other common misconceptions about the Protein World advert

Hannah Atkinson
David Cameron has said he is not going to “roll over” and let Labour leader Ed Miliband and the SNP’s Alex Salmond wreck the achievements of the last five years  

After five years of completely flaccid leadership, I'm glad something 'pumps up' David Cameron

Joe Sandler Clarke
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence