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22 December 2015

The Conservatives are rewriting the constitution to create a one-party state

British democracy itself is under threat, warns Chris Bryant. 

By Chris Bryant

The first political thought I remember being taught at school was that Britain was a cut above the rest because we didn’t need a written constitution.  Lesser peoples, who regularly found themselves in thrall to demagogues of left or right, might need parchment-penned protection from tyranny, but we in Britain could rest assured that our freedoms were firmly established by tradition.  Nothing could deprive a free-born Briton of his or her ancient liberties as handed down from generation to generation.  The onion layers of common law, Magna Carta, habeas corpus, the rule of law, trial by jury, the Bill of Rights, the secret ballot and universal suffrage amounted to far more than a single written document could ever deliver.  And unlike other countries, where the constitution simply snapped under pressure, our political system could bend with the wind of political change.

That’s the rather romantic theory.  We stand on the shoulders of constitutional giants.  Our freedoms are secure.  There’s just one flaw.   Our system delivers phenomenal power into the hands of the government of the day, which is constituted solely by virtue of its majority in the Commons.  That means that if it neuters the Lords it can always get its way in the Commons; and it is only a self-denying ordinance that stays the government’s hand from tearing up the rules and rewriting them in its own interests.

Which is precisely what is happening now.  Step by step Cameron and Co are advancing an extraordinary constitutional revolution with a single aim in mind, never-ending Tory rule.  Taken in isolation, each individual change might not seem so significant, but put together they amount to the most dramatic shift of power towards the government in many a generation, every bit as pernicious as the Gagging Acts of 1795 and 1817 in their stifling of legitimate opposition.<

First came the redrawing of constituency boundaries. By the next election, the Boundary Commission will have to draw up 600 seats each consisting of almost identical numbers of voters. In theory that sounds fair enough. But these new seats will be based not on the total population, not even on the number of potential voters, but on the number of voters who have registered to vote, a system only the UK uses.  Since the Tories have simultaneously introduced Individual Electoral Registration – which every survey shows will lead to an even more dramatic fall in registration – this will leave many areas (especially non-Tory areas) badly under-represented.  The most mobile voters and those least likely to register (under 25s, BAME, those living in deprived areas, those with disabilities) will lose their voice.  And in the smaller 600-seat Commons the Tories stand to benefit to the tune of some 20-15 seats.

Just in case that doesn’t prove sufficient advantage, he has rewritten the in-house rules too. So as to carve Scottish and Welsh MPs out of English-only legislation (but not English MPs out of Wales-only legislation), he used his majority in the Commons to amend its Standing Orders, which in most countries would be a fixed part of the constitution.

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It’s the same in the Lords, where he has run two strategies consecutively in an attempt to lock-in his advantage.  Despite refusing to reform the composition of the Lords, he has packed the House with Tory cronies faster than any PM in history,  appointing nearly ten times as many barons and baronesses in five years as there were at Runnymede in 1215.  At this rate the Lords will have 1,000 members by the end of this Parliament – and the Tories will be close to a majority – but just in case that takes too long, he is now moving to neuter the Lords.  Only this week we hear he remains so angry about the House of Lords overturning his plans to cut working tax credits that he’s stamping his little foot and demanding the abolition of the Lords’ right to vote on or veto secondary legislation.  This could be his most draconian decision yet.  Secondary legislation is unamendable and can only get 90 minutes debate at best. When you combine this with the fact that secondary legislation was only intended for tidying up measures like annual up-ratings and a Tory aide has now admitted that they are trying to get as much legislation in through the backdoor secondary route as possible, you can see that yet again the government seems intent on dismantling any inconvenient piece of the constitution.

That’s not all.  He’s now decided to slash the support provided to all the opposition parties by 19 per cent.  This is bare-faced hypocrisy.  When he was in Opposition he and the Tories happily claimed £45.7 million in Short Money.  Cameron’s own office got through millions of pounds.  But Labour stuck to the belief that a properly-resourced Opposition was an intrinsic part of the British constitution and a vital part of scrutinising the government and helping keep it on its toes.  He used to swear blind that no minister of his would have more than one Special adviser, but in Government Cameron has increased the cost and number of Special Advisers and every Cabinet minister has two.  In fact, even since 2011-12 the cost of SPADs has increased by 35 per cent; so much for “reducing the cost of politics”.

Outside parliament too Cameron has moved to stifle dissent.  He’s already passed a law gagging charities, trades unions and think tanks from all sides of the political spectrum from taking part in political debate.

Now, I’m not saying Cameron is a dictator – though many Tory MPs complain privately that he hates dissent and rolls his eyes and stamps his foot whenever anything gets in his way.  But this is a problem because the erosion of scrutiny will mean bad policies get pushed through without proper scrutiny and laws won’t be fit for purpose.

The Lords spoke for the whole country when they delayed the unfair and Ill-thought through cuts to tax credits, so for the Prime Minister to neuter the Lords in a fit of pique through the Strathclyde review that was released on Thursday is deeply alarming.  This isn’t a party political point – the previous Labour government suffered over 450 defeats in the Lords including on some extremely high profile votes on terrorism, home affairs and welfare.  But history shows us that strong governments require a well-resourced opposition, and government policies are improved when a Prime Minister doesn’t just get their own way.

In the end a government can always get its way in the Commons, where, by definition, it enjoys a majority.  But every government for the last century has stayed its hand from bringing in nakedly partisan changes to the constitution.  But under this Prime Minister we have a a situation where when there is dissent, they crush it. Where a body opposes them, they neuter it. That is not a Conservative government, respectful of the constitution, dutiful in their dealings with their opponents, cautious in advancing radical change and determined to govern for the whole nation. It is not a Conservative government; in the words of one of their former leaders, Disraeli, it is an “organised hypocrisy”.

There are plenty of Tories who are telling the government that what goes around, comes around.  Cameron and co would be well-advised to listen to them.

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