Nick Clegg: I aim to restore people's faith in politics

Wednesday 21 November 2007 01:00

Our political system is broken. Go to the Houses of Parliament and you'll see what I mean. Far from being the "mother of all parliaments" as the official tour guides will tell you, it is fast becoming a museum piece – a 19th-century home for our 21st-century political elite.

For much of the week, its benches are almost empty, save for a sprinkling of MPs and a minister who is obliged to submit himself to occasional parliamentary scrutiny – scrutiny which is invariably more show than substance because the Government of the day always knows it can use its fat majorities to ram through any measure against almost all opposition. Only on a Wednesday afternoon does the place come to life, as members pour in for that half hour of barracking, braying and bullying known as Prime Minister's Questions. But no sooner has this finished and the chamber empties again, as MPs return to the morale-sapping task of trying to hold our over-mighty government to account.

That this is the reality of our parliamentary democracy is not, in fairness, surprising. We are governed by a party voted for by just 22 per cent of the people, but which has 55 per cent of the MPs. The Government not only has the lower house in its vice-like grip, but has stuffed the upper house with its cronies and supporters, including every Labour donor who's given the party more than a million pounds in the last decade.

The Government knows that, no matter how hollow its mandate, the "official opposition" can be trusted never to speak out against an electoral system that has so often worked to its advantage in the past.

While the two status-quo parties persist in their self-interested conspiracy of silence about the problems with our democratic system, the public have been voting with their feet. Turnout in all forms of election has slumped sharply since 1997, political party membership has more than halved and public trust in the political process is at an all-time low.

You might have expected our political leaders to respond to this slide into apathy and cynicism. Not a bit of it. Since its re-election in 2005, this government has, instead, used its parliamentary majority to engage in an unparalleled assault on the hard-won rights and traditional freedoms of the British people.

Seemingly unembarrassed by the flimsiness of its mandate, it has sought to intrude further into the private sphere than any government in living memory.

That is why I have decided to take a stand to defend that inviolable line that separates each of us from the unwanted intrusion of an overbearing state. That is why I have pledged to go to court rather than submit my personal details to the Government's identity card database.

If Parliament is to avoid being turned from the mother of all parliaments into the eunuch of all parliaments, we need a proper overhaul of Westminster. That means a change in how we do business – family-friendly hours, a review of MPs' expenses, and reform to our over- generous pensions, for starters.

And it means a wholesale commitment to constitutional reform. A written constitution. A fully elected House of Lords. Fewer MPs. And, crucially, electoral reform.

A commitment to proportional representation at all levels of government in Britain has been a central plank of the Liberal Democrat policy agenda since the party's foundation. It is absolutely pivotal to any serious attempt to change our country.

So I am not willing just to wait for hypothetical coalition negotiations – in a hung parliament that may never happen – to fight for constitutional reform. I want to start that battle now.

Labour wants a settlement on party funding because it has been spooked by the Ashcroft millions – money currently pouring into marginal constituencies across Britain from the non-domiciled peer. The Conservative party used to be "made in Britain" but now appears to be "assembled in Belize".

But party funding should not be considered in isolation. The Government must open negotiations right now on wider constitutional reform.

If ministers can come forward with a fair and balanced solution to our hopelessly weak party-funding rules, the Liberal Democrats will support it. But under my leadership, we will not stop there. We will demand a commitment to serious cross-party talks on fundamental political reform.

If approached in the right spirit, these discussions on party funding could provide a springboard for the wholesale reform of our democratic system. We have a chance to clean up our politics and to restore public faith in the political process; a chance to become proud of our democracy once again.

Nick Clegg is a Liberal Democrat leadership candidate

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