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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser