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Constitution unreformed

Constitution unreformed

🕔22.Aug 2012

One of the defining characteristics for the Lib Dems’ participation in a Coalition Government would surely be to oversee political and constitutional reform. It’s what they were most famous for and the new DPM was given personal charge of the brief.

Half way through the Parliament and the record is not too clever. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not a Nick Clegg basher. I admire his response to Cameron’s appeal on the morning after the election. It was far more difficult to take up than to decline with an offer of a confidence and supply arrangement. His party was very well organised going into the Coalition negotiations in stark contrast to Gordon Brown’s team. If you look at the policy priorities on the front of their 2010 manifesto, they should have a good tale to tell at the polls in 2015.

But university tuition fees and the state of the economy may rather stand in the way of that message. As might constitutional reform. It started badly with the AV referendum. A compromise model of PR didn’t really appeal to anyone and the Lib Dems were outflanked by their new Tory bedfellows. The whole thing was rushed with the party having to face the indignity of failing to see through their signature policy with over 80% of the term left to run. At this point, you might think they would learn.

Recently, we’ve seen an about turn on House of Lords reform. Granted, neither Tory diehards nor Labour have played nicely. Many have tried to find the right place for the Chamber in a modern democracy – and many have failed, except for some tinkering. But, in this post- expenses scandal world of “new politics ” one might have expected the most powerful DPM in memory to make a better fist of dragging our parliamentary democracy into the 21st Century.

Instead, we now witness toys (and boundary changes) being thrown out of the pram. Whilst we’re in the Palace of Westminster, credit is due though for introducing fixed term parliaments. But consultation on a new UK Bill of Rights is dragging on whilst the proposals for recalling MPs – seen as so important during the expenses crisis – are half-baked.

Then we come to “Localism.” Alongside deficit reduction and “The Big Society” it promised to be a defining theme of this Coalition Government.  Oh dear.

Sending real power as far toward families and communities is attractive on many levels. I believe Cameron and ministers like Greg Clark genuinely see this policy area as central to defining their administration.  Sure, the Coalition cannot pretend to be fully as one on the agenda. Indeed, Elected Mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners are neither Lib Dem nor even grassroots Conservative policy. They are straight from the Cameroons. Meanwhile, LEPs have had a difficult birth. When you have Dr Cable and Mr Pickles acting as joint midwives, you are likely to witness some strange arrivals.

The politics have been difficult and, as with all change – especially decentralisation of power – the civil service – especially HM Treasury – is more of an obstacle than an agent.

But the real problem has been policy and communication. Take Elected Mayors, for example. The position the Government took on powers was opaque to say the least. Other than nerds like me (and the readership of the Chamberlain Files), nobody really understood what was on offer so claims of expensive dictators were difficult to dampen. On top of that was a resource-starved campaign, the highlights of which were the PM talking only to the converted in No 10 and a trip to Bristol hijacked by news of Nadine Dorris and her two little posh boys.

Here we are less than three months from the PCC elections and it’s déjà vu all over again. Except this time, we are actually electing someone to a position of power rather that voting (or not) on a concept. As described elsewhere on the Files, it’s a contest few know about, even fewer might vote in and some parties are struggling to get their act together on putting up a candidate.

In the commentary on Lords reform, many suggested such things were a sideshow to a focus on the economy. I don’t buy the argument Governments can only do one thing, however important that single item. Moreover, as someone who signed up to Charter 88 before I could claim my first girlfriend you can tell I believe political and constitutional reform (including localism) to be absolutely crucial. If you need to understand the importance of reforming critical institutions and systems before disaster strikes, look no further than MP’s expenses, party funding, banking regulation, the press, the police etc.

It’s a mess, but what’s to be done? Here are four quick suggestions:

  1. The Government must undertake a proper information campaign for the PCC elections, including providing resource for independent candidates
  2. They must also provide all possible assistance to the Mayors of Leicester, Liverpool and Bristol to show what elected mayors can achieve
  3. Nationally, all parties – especially the Labour Party – need to take a fresh look at this policy agenda ready for 2015
  4. Locally, Labour needs to put weight behind its localisation agenda and ensure it does not fall into the same trap as Blair of talking decentralisation and regionalism whilst still trying to control everything from the centre.

Constitutional Reform: it won’t help you find a girlfriend, but if done right it will make Britain (and Birmingham) more attractive.

Kevin Johnson is a Partner at West Midlands based RJF Public Affairs


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