"The time for an administrative approach is over." Photo: Getty Images
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To save British democracy, Ed Miliband has to realise he must rebuild it from scratch

The co-founder of openDemocracy argues that "this is a constitutional moment" - on the 800th birthday of Magna Carta, there is appetite across the political spectrum for a new consitution and democratic settlement. Labour's leader should not be afraid of offering one.

Dear Ed,

I have written to you privately, and now I am doing so publically, about how we govern ourselves.

You are the only man who can promise and bring about the change our democracy needs and you are risking this opportunity for greatness by being far too calculating and prudent. You need to stand up and say:

Let's face it - we are all sick of this mess. This is not about a lot of small issues that can be fixed independently of each other. We have one big problem concerning our constitution. The word 'constitution' can mean many things: a body of principles and practices for the governance of a state, for example; or a person's physical state, vitality and health. This is about our health as a country. Lords Reform, the place of Scotland, English Votes for the English, membership of the European Union, the Human Rights Act, securing our liberty and privacy, defending freedom of speech are all about one thing... and I, and my party, plan to use this election to win this argument.”

Given the abuse directed at you, I should say I think you are capable of such boldness. You are the most consequential British opposition leader since Attlee insisted that Chamberlain step down in 1940. For some reason the media fail to point this out.

When you became leader you defined the key issue as being the "squeezed middle" - meaning the millions in work who are seeing their real incomes decline. I vividly recall John Humphries on the Today programme snorting his derision at a phrase he regarded as meaningless. Now it is understood as a matter of fact. You challenged the most powerful figure in British politics of the last 30 years, Rupert Murdoch, and his baleful authority collapsed. To the astonishment of the political class, you later faced down the Prime Minister and refused to allow our going to war in Syria. Normally, opposing belligerence is fatal for the opposition; instead President Obama followed your lead. As well as defining the economic terrain, toppling the mighty and shaping foreign policy, you have kept Labour relatively united. Tory Central Office would be eager for TV debates if you were as pathetic as they claim. The Farage bubble can be burst by publicity, but if voters see your ability to think and strength of purpose for themselves this might expose Cameron’s insincerity to devastating effect.

You have expressed the will to renew British democracy. You can be sure that the public is not shivering at the prospect of change. We want a modern country and the British are wise and practical people. You are telling us you want to replace the House of Lords. You argue that we must confront the English question. You say these should be linked to a Constitutional Convention. You want to keep the UK in the EU. These policies do not add up to a story that makes sense. Bullet points are for think tanks: a manifesto needs a project (a good word that was sadly abused). To win an election you need to set out a national direction stronger than "becoming fairer".

I recall at first hand how Blair, Brown and Clegg talked about democracy and it proved a massive turnoff. All made Lords reform a talismanic element in their attempts to project themselves as radical. In the end they added to voters’ alienation and contempt as they saw through their manoeuvres.

Will you too end up repeating Gordon Brown’s efforts, where an exceptional grasp of the issues was undone by a disastrous inclination to play safe and try and "lead" change from behind?

My direct involvement goes back to John Smith’s leadership, when he asked me to help launch his far-reaching constitutional agenda, as set out in his Charter 88 lecture in 1993. In direct response to a question from the audience, he explained he wanted a new constitutional settlement because:

Your criticism of Parliament is apt: Parliament is weak in this country… we do have an elective dictatorship. I've come to realise that. I used to myself believe in the sort of mysteries of the British Constitution. My experience… has caused me to change my mind quite fundamentally."

Tony Blair was Smith’s Shadow Home Secretary. He inherited and then pushed through most parts of John Smith’s reforms while rejecting the overall "new settlement" Smith advocated. This conveniently left Blair himself with even more unchecked executive power than Thatcher. When in 1999 I wrote and warned him that his approach was disintegrative, his Chief-of-Staff, Jonathan Powell, called back, and summed up my argument saying "after us the deluge". He then asked me to meet then-Lord Chancellor Derry Irvine, who agreed that the "the genie is out the bottle".

Today, we are now entering the deluge. North of the border the genie takes the form of the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon; to the south it is Ukip and Nigel Farage followed by the Greens who are surging out of the bottle.

Only one response will work in these circumstances. Britain has to be offered a reform movement that measures up to the multiple nature of the issues with a coherent approach. You need to encourage the release of energy, link reforms together, and trust the public’s judgment.

It is called democracy. Everyone who "knows how things are done", even your shadow cabinet colleagues, will warn against it. But the time for an administrative approach to change is over.

I’ll focus on the Lords, your proposed "Constitutional Convention", Ukip and Europe.

Imagine a well-briefed media interviewer (unlikely, I agree, but not impossible). It is the last week before the election. He or she presses you as to how your proposed Constitutional Convention might replace the Lords and renew democracy in Britain. You want to give a clear, inspiring answer, demonstrating your grasp of the issue and arousing a belief in change. But because the Lords and Commons are a single political ecology any proposal such as yours to replace the Lords will alter the role and proceedings of the other half of Parliament, namely the House of Commons itself.  With what authority will your Convention be able to reshape the Commons? If your answer is that the Commons will finally decide, then as Clegg found, the result will be bollocks. Nobody can believe a political process that terminates in the miasma of Commons procedure is going to deliver democracy. On this potentially attractive issue you will lose, not gain, credibility.

Writing in the Observer, you explained the rise of Ukip in terms of social and economic factors. But it is also mobilising around the call to save our democracy from the unelected bureaucracy of Brussels. This has some credibility and must be addressed as such, not evaded. How can you demand that the British people be given the power to decide the way half of parliament works but cannot have a say about whether the EU should also be a legislative authority? How democratic is that? To reply by saying "I feel your pain as a marginalized working class community in peripheral zones, especially along the coast" is no answer at all. To then put yourself forward as a true democrat because you want voters to replace the unelected Lords when you won’t allow them a say on the unelected bureaucrats will be perceived as an insulting smokescreen, an attempt to divert attention from the more important issue.

What you need to do is combine your approach into a single, sweeping call for reform.

This should have two parts. Announce that if elected in May 2015 your first action will be to pass a European and Constitutional Reform Act. Explain that when Cameron proposed an in-out referendum in 2017 after achieving reforms of the EU, this was a cynical contrivance. When he left the Tory benches for Ukip, Douglas Carswell blew Cameron’s cover and reported how Cameron’s team will fix the referendum and whole thing is "smoke and mirrors". The Tory referendum is proposed in bad faith and will be conducted in bad faith. There is no future for Britain in any such an exercise, either way the outcome will be toxic. You are proud you opposed it.

But something new has happened, as Farage, Carswell and Ukip receive significant support that rightly earns their party a place in the leaders’ debates. They may be wrong about Europe but they are sincere. Ukip's call for a referendum is made in good faith. At least a third of voters genuinely want the real thing. This is why it generates such support. The necessary, democratic response must be "see you in the voting booth".

The European and Constitutional Reform Act will commit Britain to holding an in-out referendum on Europe in September 2015. The Act will have two parts. First, a referendum on the simple principle of membership of the EU carried out on a national basis. The votes of each four parts of the UK to be counted separately, with none being obliged to either leave or stay in the EU against their wishes by the decision of the others. Polls say only in England is there a chance of majority for leaving. Such a nation-based referendum will face the English, therefore, with a democratic reality. The cozy Ukip view is that they will resuscitate "Great Britain" when the grip of Brussels is prised from our throat. It isn’t go to happen. A UK referendum that respects all the nations of the Union will confront the English with the fact that if they want to retain the UK this can only happen within the EU.

Just as important in terms of confronting our malaise is that, if you think Britain should be in the EU, you must have the courage of your convictions and let us decide. Anything else looks cowardly. Your concern about uncertainty is dealt with by holding it straight away.

The second part of the European and Constitutional Reform Act will legislate that if voters agree to remain in the EU then a Constitutional Convention will immediately be convened to consider all aspects of the British constitution and how it should be codified. Please excuse detail here - my aim is illustrative, to make tangible the essential argument, not insist on any particular number.

A Convention will draw together 400 people made up of 100 MPs, 100 elected leaders from the cities and counties of the UK, and 200 regular citizens selected by lot with representative proportions from all parts of the UK. Each group will be 50/50 men and women. The Convention will convene in January 2016 and have two years to formulate a new constitutional settlement. It will be funded to ensure extensive public participation in all aspects of its considerations. Its members will swear an oath to put aside their personal interests and seek the best outcome for Britain as a whole. They will be in charge of their own agenda. Their mandate will be to set out the constitution of British democracy and to put this into a set of proposals to the British people in the form of a referendum. The European and Constitutional Reform Act of 2015 will bind both Houses of Parliament to accept the results of this referendum. Thus the Houses can debate the proceedings of the Convention, they can openly seek to influence the Convention and a significant number of MPs will be part of it, but they will be bound in advance to accept the outcome even if it abolishes or changes them profoundly.

There are two key points I am trying to illustrate. First, any proposal with respect to democracy needs to be absolutely clear about the process. Namely: how it will begin, how it will work, how it will conclude. Only then will people believe that there will be a result they can influence. A vague proposal to "call" a Convention with no clear outcome is absolutely hopeless.

Of course politicians do not like constitutions, because they are bound by them; or conventions, because they cannot control them. This is just why such an approach will be popular.

We can be confident a Convention empowered to decide what should go to a referendum will not propose to retain the House of Lords! Confine yourself to the Lords, however, and you will be lost. The trap we are in is that there is no way of replacing the upper half of Parliament without formulating the constitution as a whole. The only question is who does this, and how they do it.

Of course such a Convention will have the capacity to consider everything. This will be its attraction. And the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta is stirring up widespread interest in a new version that holds the arbitrary power of corporate barons to account, protects liberty, ensures access to justice and defends the commons of our shared environment. This is a constitutional moment.

The second key point is that a European referendum and a new British Constitution need to go together, as they should have done in 1975. Technically this is because the EU is building its constitution - it cannot but threaten a smaller multi-national entity like Britain that enjoys no codified constitution. To remain happily within the EU, the UK needs to articulate its own democracy, with a constitutional court able to defend it in the way that the German court protects German democracy.

A more popular way of putting this is that we must ensure that staying in Europe makes us more democratic, not less. Farage’s most notable phrase is that we must "take our country back". In his case, back to an unrealisable better yesterday. But he taps into a genuinely felt loss of who we are. The answer: we have to find ourselves in the future, not in the past.

Put the two together - membership of Europe and a democratic constitution - and a referendum becomes a positive, winnable call for change not a defensive manoeuvre. Fail to do this and UKIP supporters, including one-time Labour ones, will reluctantly vote Tory in the vain hope this will give them a say.

Dear Ed, you have picked up the democratic banner. It has great power and can reshape the battlefield. But it is a strategic banner, not a tactical one. And if you try to wave it around tactically, confining its reach and limiting its direction, you will be routed.

In this long letter I have

  • asserted the need for a clear story
  • signaled my experience of these issues as someone who changed the agenda
  • described the quicksand of a partial advocacy of democratic reform
  • advocated an approach that trusts the public on the EU
  • linking this to a new constitutional settlement for Britain in Europe
  • and combating the Farage story of ‘taking our country back’ by ‘taking it forward’
  • Oh yes, and I began by showing that you have the capacity to achieve this

Labour needs a non-Labour perspective at this moment to gain the initiative.

With good wishes and best of luck,

Anthony

Anthony Barnett is co-founder of openDemocracy.

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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.