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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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.