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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Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a force at least united in name.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will remain a story.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.