The Con-Dem government’s constitutional con

This is not 1832. This isn’t even 1997.

"Clegg makes his bid for a place in history", says the headline in the Independent, ahead of the Lib Dem leader's first major speech -- on political and constitutional reform -- as Deputy Prime Minister. The Indie's cover ludicrously compares Clegg to Lord Grey, prime minister at the time of the Great Reform Act of 1832.

So what are Clegg and his Tory allies proposing? From the BBC website:

* Partially elected House of Lords
* Scrapping the ID card scheme and the national identity register
* Libel to be reviewed to protect freedom of speech
* Limits on the rights to peaceful protest to be removed
* Scrapping the ContactPoint database of 11 million under-18s

In his speech this morning, Clegg called the coalition's plans -- which include a referendum on electoral reform -- the "most significant act of empowerment by a British government" since the 19th century.

But Clegg's speech was disingenuous on two levels.

First, he conveniently ignored the record of constitutional reform under the previous government. The truth is that his own proposals pale into insignificance compared with what was achieved, constitutionally, in the early years of New Labour in power. But Clegg referred to a "big-bang approach" to political reform, as if we hadn't had one under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Has he forgotten devolution to Scotland and Wales, directly elected mayors, the Human Rights Act, the Freedom of Information Act and the removal of the right of most hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords? All of these reforms were opposed by his new allies in government. In fact, the Conservatives "sealed the deal" with the Lib Dems on the evening of Monday 10 May by matching the Labour manifesto promise to legislate for an early referendum on the Alternative Vote -- but then pledged to campaign against AV in referendum campaign itself.

Bizarre and hilarious. The reality is that Labour introduced historic electoral reforms during its 13 years in office, including proportional representation: the Single Transferable Vote (STV) was used to elect the new Northern Ireland Assembly, the hybrid additional-member system (AMS) was used to elect the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh and the Greater London Assemblies and a regional list system was employed for the 1999 elections to the European Parliament.

So Clegg is wrong -- and dishonest -- to behave as if, constitutionally, this is Year Zero. As the excellent History Learning Site points out:

In a purely constitutional sense, the Britain pre-Blair was a foreign country. There was no Edinburgh Parliament or Cardiff Assembly, no London elected mayor or the promise of more mayors to come in towns and cities. Hereditary peers held the balance of power in the House of Lords. Proportional representation was something they did on the Continent, like the European Convention on Human Rights. Most of the heavyweight constitutional changes figured in the first Queen's Speech, but many voters failed to understand why the first Labour government for 20 years took up so much parliamentary time on reforms when there were far more pressing problems such as the NHS.

The second point to note is that this Con-Dem government is indeed changing the constitutional and political character of this country -- but not all the changes are positive, democratic or welcome. Take Clegg and Cameron's plans to pack the House of Lords with new peers from their two parties. As Jonathan Freedland points out in the Guardian:

All those excited by the talk of the "new politics" should be looking hard at the coalition's nods in the direction of the old. Most egregious is the rumoured plan to create more than 170 Tory and Lib Dem peers to ensure the government always gets its way in the House of Lords. The coalition agreement says that until the second chamber is reformed -- and British history tells us you can wait a full century for that to happen -- "interim" appointments will be made to reflect the share of the vote won in the last election. That looks reasonable enough, with the Tories having 36 per cent of the peers and the Lib Dems getting 23 per cent. But put them together, and the coalition would loom over the upper house, able to call on a staggering 59 per cent of those present. That would violate the principle that has held since most of the hereditaries were banished in 1999, namely that no single party -- and no government -- should dominate the second chamber. Labour was defeated 350 times in seven years in the Lords. Clearly this is one form of check and balance that the new coalition, for all its talk of new politics, is keen to remove.

(See Sunder Katwala's Next Left blog for more details on these alarming proposals.)

Then there is the controversial proposal to require the support of at least 55 per cent of MPs in order to dissolve the House of Commons, part of the introduction of fixed-term parliaments. This constitutional innovation would, theoretically, protect a minority government from being dismissed from office. Power to the people? Not quite. In his speech, Clegg had a go at Labour figures for misunderstanding the proposal, but glossed over the criticisms from Tory figures such as the former shadow home secretary (and self-proclaimed "freedom" campaigner) David Davis MP.

"The requirement for a 55 per cent majority to dissolve parliament, and thereby dismiss a government, dramatically reduces the ability of parliament to hold the executive to account," wrote Davis in the Telegraph. Meanwhile, the Lib Dem negotiator Andrew Stunell -- now a minister in the coalition government -- told Newsnight that the rule "prevents a surprise attack on the Conservatives by everybody else: it is as simple as that".

This is not democratic reform of the unwritten British constitution, it is a partisan and self-serving parliamentary power-grab.

But perhaps the most brazen piece of constitutional gerrymandering -- which Clegg had little to say about this morning! -- is David Cameron's proposal to cut the number of MPs by 10 per cent.

From the Guardian:

The Conservatives propose that no constituency should be between 3.5 per cent and 5 per cent either larger or smaller than the national average, which they believe would rub out up to 40 Labour seats. The Lib Dems also propose a cut in the number of constituencies, but have been less clear on whether they want to follow the Tories in equalising constituency size.

. . . Labour's outgoing constitutional affairs ministers see the plans as potentially one of the most politically explosive issues to face the new parliament. Labour argues that the bias arises from higher levels of abstentions in Labour seats. Turnout in safe working-class Labour seats tends to be much lower.

I'm astonished that the Conservatives insist on a referendum to sanction a change in the electoral system from first-past-the-post to the Alternative Vote (when, in fact, the change would have no impact on constituency boundaries and simply give voters the opportunity to rank their local candidates in order of preference), but are not proposing a referendum on this drastic and unprecedented proposal of theirs, which would involve the wholesale redrawing of constituency boundaries. The Isle of Wight, for example, would be merged with a large part of Hampshire.

And please, please let's not pretend that this is about "cutting the cost of politics". As Jack Straw noted in his speech to the Hansard Society back in March:

The size of the Commons has increased by 3 per cent -- 21 members -- since 1950. The size of our constituencies has increased by 25 per cent over that period.

He added:

The apparently virtuous call to cut the cost of politics is actually camouflage for a dangerous, destructive and anti-democratic piece of gerrymandering. Their proposal is not about cutting the cost of politics; it is about advantaging the Conservative Party.

Yes, it is. And it's a shame "Clegg the Reformer" has no plans to stop them.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.