What a pale and unambitious creature is the Constitutional Reform Bill which goes before Parliament today. The most exciting thing the media have found in it is the idea that life peers are to be given the right to resign from the House of Lords – paving the hypothetical way for Lord Mandelson to return to the Commons and take up an even more senior government post. Yet even beneath all that evanescent political froth the most substantial part of this paltry reform concerns itself with the unfinished business of polishing off the 92 hereditary peers in the House of Lords. Something much more thorough-going is needed and now is the moment for it.
British politics has undergone a serious shake-up in recent times. The MPs' expenses scandal has not just seen a Speaker of the House of Commons forced out of office for the first time in more than 300 years. It has seen a public response out of all proportion to the venal nature of the MPs' offences with their duck houses, moat cleaning and subsidised porn. That is because voters are reacting not merely to the expenses misdemeanours but to a much more profound disconnect between politicians and their constituents. It is of a piece with a wide range of other political phenomena – low voter turnout, falling party membership and the alienation of young people from the political process. An anti-politics mood has arisen. A fundamental breakdown of trust between politicians and the general public is growing.
The moment has come for a more root-and-branch reform to bring open government to Britain, a state which is now so heavily over-centralised that the only checks on over-mighty ministers are a handful of unelected lords, journalists and judges empowered by the Human Rights Act.
Reform is needed in a number of areas. Perhaps the easiest of these would be changes in the way the House of Commons operates – turning MPs from wannabe ministers jockeying for a place in government at the next reshuffle, to legislators determined to reassert the sovereignty of parliament. That means more powers for select committees to hold ministers to account. And it requires the Commons, not the government, to control the allocation of parliamentary time, as does Congress in the United States.
Further reform is needed in the Lords but more important is reform in the first chamber and the way that it is elected. We need an end to the first-past-the post voting system in the House of Commons. Proportional representation is the obvious way to put an end to safe-seat apathy and get voters to reconnect with the political system.
The mechanisms for this were clearly set out by the 1998 Jenkins commission which proposed the alternative vote plus system which has most recently been endorsed by Labour's leader-in-waiting, Alan Johnson, who wants a referendum on the subject on the same day as the next general election. About time, too; the Labour manifesto pledged that in 1997, but the party has consistently reneged on that promise under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown ever since. Britain has already introduced PR in the elections for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly; it has reinvigorated politics there and could do so nationally. It will create a more responsive electoral system that will make politicians more accountable. And it will also make it easier for parties to foster a more inclusive political culture.
Further reform is needed in the House of Lords too. MPs voted in 2007 for an upper chamber with between 80 per cent and 100 per cent of its members elected. It is time to put that "in principle" vote into practice, perhaps with a system of an electoral college which will allow electors to find seats for members of the great and the good who can continue to scrutinise the actions of the government in a more independent-minded manner than would a chamber entirely controlled by government whips.
Greater decentralisation is needed elsewhere. In education that means more power to schools and their governors. Mechanisms are also needed to get power down to the people in health and other sectors of the community too. There should also be greater responsibilities for local government in carefully targeted areas; for though public satisfaction with local councils, as measured in opinion polls, last month dropped to only 45 per cent, the lowest for more than a decade, all the evidence from well-informed scrutineers like the Audit Commission suggests that local government is doing a good job on quality-of-life measures and issues like countering anti-social behaviour.
This is, in its own pragmatic British way, as near as this nation is ever likely to get to a constitutional moment. Now is the time to seize the initiative and act boldly to make government in Britain more open and responsive to the needs of its people. To be timid is to risk the long-term legitimacy of our political system.Reuse content