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

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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

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