Letter: Democratic change is within reach

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The Independent Online
Sir: The recent speeches of Paddy Ashdown ('Taxing dilemma at the heart of politics', 13 July) and William Waldegrave are welcome contributions to the political debate stimulated by the publication of Labour's New Agenda for Democracy last month. So far, however, neither Mr Waldegrave, with his curious refusal to accept that people can have rights both as consumers and citizens, nor Mr Ashdown in his advocacy of presidential government supplemented by referenda on particularly contentious issues, addresses the major cause of the crisis in our democracy - the overwhelming centralisation of power in the executive.

The removal of service provision from democratic control, and the concentration of power in the hands of ministers will not be changed by merely tinkering with the make-up of the executive. What is needed is an approach that looks beyond the narrow confines of Whitehall and Westminster and seeks to disperse power to a diversity of institutions, all with their own powers and responsibilities, and all capable of exerting a check on one another.

Within that new broad-based democracy - in which an elected second chamber, a Scottish and Welsh parliament, regional government and more independent local authorities would all take their place - the composition of an electoral system for an individual part of that huge democratic jigsaw would become far less important.

These are all proposed in Labour's A New Agenda for Democracy, to be presented to the Labour Party conference in September.

Not all of these ideas are new. Many have been advocated by Democrats (of Liberal, Socialist and Social varieties) in the past. The difference is that they now have a realistic chance of coming to fruition. Labour has moved the debate on constitutional reform away from the esoteric and into the achievable, with the most comprehensive and radical constitutional package ever presented to the British public by a mainstream political party.

With such an enormous step forward for our democracy potentially so close, it is essential that we keep our eye on the ball. Mr Ashdown does himself and democracy no favours by relapsing into point scoring, criticising the Labour Party for not supporting a half-hearted attempt by the Liberal Democrats to botch PR into the European Elections Bill for six out of 87 seats.

To secure democratic change in a conservative political society is a prize that will demand maturity and discipline as well as enthusiasm from its advocates. For those who support a democratic agenda the time is approaching when what we have in common must assume greater importance than what

divides us.

Yours faithfully,


MP for Nottingham North


House of Commons

London, SW1

13 July

The writer is Labour spokesperson on Democracy and the Constitution.