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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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