About Guy Aitchison

Guy Aitchison was a co-editor of openDemocracy's UK section, OurKingdom, and is now a PhD student in politics at University College London.

Articles by Guy Aitchison

This week's guest editors

Charlie Brooker on Dan Hannan

I realise this doesn't really contribute to the kind of intelligent discussion of healthcare we ought to be having but sometimes rhetoric deserves to be met with rhetoric - and hey, it's funny! (..also contains swearing)

(via @libcon)

David Cameron and Nassim Nicholas Taleb

What sounds like a rather bizarre public discussion took place today between David Cameron and the American-Lebanese economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of Black Swan (for a summary of Nicholas Taleb's ideas see his letter to the Tory leader in the Guardian). What was team Cameron's intention behind this "intellectual debate", as he called it, and what ideas came out of it? Jim Pickard has a great write up in the FT:

It was an unlikely event that was bound to happen eventually: a public meeting between David Cameron and Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

No one was quite sure why the Conservative leader had arranged the debate with Mr Taleb, author of The Black Swan - a book about the inevitability of the low-probability event.

One theory was that it was a public-relations exercise to rebrand Mr Cameron as an intellectual, rather than a man of the people: or maybe an intellectual people's person.

Either way, Tuesday's head-to-head seemed so improbable that it attracted a full room of policy wonks and political journalists.

Mr Taleb spoke in sweeping sentences, embracing a multitude of thoughts and metaphors on the US economy and Mother Nature.

Why did herds of elephants in Africa allow elderly matriarchs to survive, he pondered, his mind racing from subject to subject. Because they had long memories, he explained

If Mr Cameron had any idea what his guest was talking about it was not entirely clear. Already sporting a suntan - even though he doesn't go to Greece until next week - he seemed sunk in puzzled thought.

Read on.

The "progressive" debate and the party system

This poll from PoliticsHome, showing which parties voters identify as "progressive", has been doing the rounds:

There's two points I want to make about it. First, as most of the commentary on the poll has pointed out, more people now believe the Conservatives are progressive than they do Labour. Unsurprisingly, the Progressive Conservatives at Demos are happy about this. The fact 22% of people don't accept the claim made by many on the left that "progressive conservativism" is an oxmoron and only 12% appear to agree with Peter Mandelson that Labour is the one true progressive party is, at least in part, a testament to the success of the project Demos and their former colleague Philip Blond are involved in of helping Cameron re-brand the Tories. The ProgCons at Demos point out they aren't being complacent, however, as there's much still to be done, not least the intellectual task of, as Max Wind Cowie puts it, "defining what it is that we mean by progressive conservatism in the first place.

Plus ca change

It's worth reading the editorial in today's Mail. It's a furious denunciation of a venal political class that has given up on even the pretence of reforming Parliament.  It's as if the last few months of flipping, moats and duck houses have taught us nothing, with potentially disastorous implications for our democracy, as the Mail points out. The Parliamentary Standards Bill MPs rushed through in time for their 82-day holiday creates an independent body to monitor expenses but it will be up to Parliament itself to consider any punishment. The plans for a legally binding Code of Conduct were removed from the Bill by MPs with the connivance of Jack Straw.

The parallel with the failure to properly reform the banking system is striking. Self-regulation is still the watchword. Any threat of serious sanction for lying and corruption has been carefully and deliberately avoided. Like the bankers they so obediently service, politicians will return to business as usual at the earliest possible opportunity. The comfortable victory of Chloe Smith in Norwich North today only confirms this sense. The Tory landslide it heralds makes the prospect of serious democratising change less and less likely by the day. Smith, the first Tory MP to have come of voting age under New Labour, seems friendly and she certainly looks good on TV but listen to what she has to say and she seems capable of little more than Cameronian doublespeak. She may have defeated Labour in the polls, but her arrival confirms the victory of Blairism.

This brings me to a fascinating report on politicians I was given by a friend who works for a PR company (I'll link to it if I can find it). It shows the "top" PPCs for each party i.e those that are most likely to win their seats. There is little to tell the Labour and the Tory ones apart. Nearly all of them seem to have spent their lives in politics. Of the 7 Labour ones, at least 5 went to Oxford (it could be more - it doesn't say where the others went).  Of those 5, three studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics, the same subject as Cameron and Miliband (to name but two possible future PMs). I hope to do a proper analysis of the report soon because it's extremely enlightening. I mention it here because it shows how the problem of an elite, detached and professionalised political class - which the Mail, especially Peter Oborne, does such a great job highlighting - is going to get much worse following the next election when a new wave of party clones is brought in. Relying on politicans to give us an open responsive democracy really does seem a lost cause.

In her victory speech, Smith claimed she will be as "honest" as Ian Gibson. As honest, that is, as an MP who claimed thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money for a "second home" inhabited by his daughter which he then sold to her at knock down rate. Plus ca change, eh?

Clegg's stand demands real change

This letter appears in today's Guardian:

Well done to Nick Clegg (MPs' holiday betrayal, 22 July): first, for his protest against the way the two main parties are trying to sweep the expenses crisis under a carpet of minor changes; and, second, for connecting this to the financial crisis. Two months ago both the prime minister and the leader of the opposition were competing with the Lib Dems in their calls to transform the system in the face of a catastrophic loss of trust. Brown called for "a written constitution", Cameron for giving "power to the powerless". Clegg demanded change in "100 days", having pointed out that he had distinguished himself by demanding an end to a "rotten system" all along.

But there was an important shift in the Lib Dem position too, which we hope Clegg's contribution means he at least will stick with. His party officials had said constitutional issues did not support on the doorsteps. Now public disenchantment with the governing classes, both political and financial, is tangible.

As the Guardian has argued, we need A New Politics. This calls for wide non-partisan demand for thorough reform that appeals to all voters. We aim to contribute to this with an open politics network: Real Change. The fury of voters that no one seems to represent them, and that MPs and Lords permit each other to profit at our expense, exposes us all to the dangers of populism. It is also an opportunity to make reform happen.

Guy Aitchison, Anthony Barnett

www.realchange.uk.net

Form a new party to reform the system

Anthony Barnett > Peter Oborne > Melissa Lane > Stuart White > John Jackson> Suzanne Moore  > David Marquand > Andreas Whittam-Smith

In his column in today's Indy Andreas Whittam Smith, co-founder of the paper, joins in the debate on the way forward on democratic reform post-expenses launched by Anthony Barnett in his recent post. Whittam-Smith sees much of merit in each of the seven strategies listed by Anthony and adds an eighth of his own:

Faced with such a choice of dishes, I would prefer to take something from most of them. I would cheerfully join a campaign to take back our Parliament. It has been at the centre of the nation's life for 600 to 700 years and it is only through Parliament that legitimate change can be achieved, so that is where I would start. British government can be reformed only from the inside, not the outside.

To do this, I would take up the suggestion that a network of independent candidates committed to implementing a reform agenda should be created. Their aim would have to be the incredibly ambitious one of forming the next government. I hope that such a force, if it could be formed, would commit itself to cleaning up our system of government within the life of a single Parliament and then withdraw. It wouldn't be possible to keep the traditional parties at bay for much longer than that.

I would also borrow from MoveOn its mastery of the internet for political purposes. And to establish what such a reform programme should comprise, I would go with the "Real Change" proposal and have the 1,000 meetings around the country. In his pamphlet, Lenin called for the formation of a new party. That, too, is what a lot of people are thinking about, though in my mind it would be strictly temporary - its task would be to make our political system fit for the 21st century. Job done, its representatives would return to ordinary life.

Read the full article here.

Vote for Change launches

Cross-posted from Comment is free.

The Westminster political class is a beast with a remarkable talent for self-preservation. Over the years it has evolved a number of rhetorical techniques the aim of which is to isolate and dismiss anyone who dares challenge the basis of its power. Concerned about the state of our democracy and the way we're governed? Why that's just "chattering classes" talk! Want a fairer voting system that ensures the number of seats a party has reflects the number of votes it receives? Away with you, anorak!

Since the expenses scandal, however, this reaction can no longer be counted upon to shut down debate. Voters are angry and want change. Last night nearly 800 of them piled into a rally at Methodist Central Hall Westminster for the launch of Vote for a Change, a major new campaign for a referendum on reforming the electoral system at the same time as the next general election.

David Rowntree was the host for what was - appropriately enough given the venue - more a rally of the PR faithful than an exercise in converting the wider public to the urgency of the call (this comes after). The Blur drummer and Labour prospective parliamentary candidate delivered the reformers' litany: the Lib Dems polling 2% less than Labour in 1983 and winning 102 fewer seats; Labour polling the highest percentage of the vote on record in 1951 and still losing the general election; the list goes on. Few needed reminding of the folly and injustices of the current electoral system and there was (mercifully) little wrangling over which PR system is best. If anything, the crucial question that divided people was tactical: how do you make the demand for change effective?

HMIC review into protest policing

I haven't yet had a chance to read Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary's report on the policing of protest in light of the G20 which was released today. There's some good analysis on the Guardian website and by Stuart White on NextLeft. It seems that Denis O'Conor, the chief inspector of constabulary, has made some pretty serious criticisms saying that the current approach is "inadequate"and needs to change in response to new circumstances, paying far greater regard to human rights obligations.

The report seems to recognise the distinction between a protest being "lawful" and a protest being "peaceful" in apparent acknowledgement that unlawful activity by protesters isn't sufficient justification to shut down a peaceful protest. The report stops short of calling for an end to the vicious practice of "kettling" protesters but it does recommend a more flexible approach in applying cordons to let peaceful protesters and passers by leave and criticises Met commanders at the G20 for being unaware of their human rights obligations when they kettled thousands of protesters near the Bank of England.

The Met have apparently accepted the report's recommendations and launched an urgent review of training and tactics at protests. Campaigners interested in securing the right to protest will aim to keep the Met true to their word (hopefully the rumours of the Metropolitan Police Authority, the body which scrutinises the Met and is open to the public, not meeting this month due to "lack of business" aren't true) and continue to ask serious questions about the circumstances under which kettles can be imposed on protesters (the report doesn't address this enough, according to Stuart). I'll post more on this and on last night's interesting Panorama documentary on protest policing (watch it on BBCiPlayer) later.

Rally for a Change - 9 July

OurKingdom is very happy to be supporting Vote for a Change, the new campaign to demand a referendum on the voting system. Read this call to arms from the organisers and join us and them at the Rally for Change at Westminster Hall on July 9th.

 

Politics is too important to be left to the politicians. The expenses crisis has revealed a political elite that has stopped listening and who are accountable to no one but their party machines. Too many MPs seem more interested in changing their homes than changing the world.

Politicians have their own kind of change in mind, but we don’t need anything that is too cosy, too easy, or too popular with our political class. We need a system that serves us the voters, and we can start be asking voters what they want from their politics. We want a citizens’ jury to rewrite the rules of politics, by deciding on the new voting system for parliament.

The government has until the next election to deliver a referendum on reform to bring accountability back to Westminster. Join the call for change at www.voteforachange.co.uk

Rally for a Change

We have to join together to make our politicians listen - and understand that it’s us, the voters, who need to be put first. So keep your diary free for 6:30, July 9th, as supporters gather in Methodist Central Hall to call for real reform of parliament.

Already Damon Albarn, Vivienne Westwood, Stephen Fry and a long list of others are demanding the right to vote for a change. But we need your help to get over 1000 people together in Westminster for a festival of change. There will be music, poetry and the chance to put leading politicians on the spot. More details will follow soon but this is definitely an event not to be missed. To register or for more details email Naomi@voteforachange.co.uk

What's left after New Labour?

There have been several gatherings of the social democratic left in the last week or so. Today saw a Fabian Society conference on Climate Change and the road to Copenhagen (you can read about it on Next Left) coincide with a Soundings event on politics after the crash, which followed on nicely from the Compass conference I attended last week. I caught the last plenary at Soundings which was a group discussion with Plaid Cymru AM Leanne Wood and Mike Kenny of the ippr.

Kenny had some of the most convincing analysis of the failures of New Labour that I heard at either of the two conferences. The current malaise on the left, he said, can be traced back to two historically traumatic events which it has yet to come to terms with: the advent of Thatcherism and the demise of state socialism. New Labour (which Kenny recognises to be a dead project) simply obscured these two crises, delaying a proper response. The coming audit of New Labour's time in power must identify and reject two of its principal and most damaging failings: its centralist statism and its flawed model of economic growth.

In many ways, he said, this will involve re-discovering the reformist side of early New Labour which addressed imbalances of power and introduced devolution before this side of the party, never strong, was surpassed by an ideology which rejected pluralism in favour of capturing and deploying the power of the central state. A progressive conception of power - where it manifests itself, how it should be distributed - has been totally lost during the New Labour years, he said.

The many faces of Jack Straw

In today's Daily Mail Peter Oborne sets out why Jack Straw must rank as one of the most devious and unprincipled politicians in British public life for decades. How this man, who knowingly pitched dodgy evidence to the United Nations about Iraqi WMD, is still at the heart of power in this country is a never-ending source of amazement to me and speaks volumes about our political culture and the broken system that supports it. 

People occasionally ask me why I regard Jack Straw as a third-rate politician who has done grave harm to British public life over a long period. The perfect answer comes in his attitude towards the Human Rights Act.

As Home Secretary, ten years ago, it was Straw who pioneered the Bill into law. Yet some months ago he gave an interview to the Mail in which he repeatedly criticised the Act. He labelled it a 'villains' charter', laid into what he called 'ambulance-chasing lawyers', promised to wage war against the compensation culture that it had spawned and attacked judges for being 'too nervous' about deporting terrorist suspects.

He concluded that the Act had been such a travesty that he planned to rebalance it with a 'declaration of responsibilities'.

Last Saturday, however, Straw attended a conference arranged by Liberty, which campaigns (very honourably) for civil rights and is one of the fiercest supporters of the Human Rights Act. Yes, Straw changed his tune again. He told this fashionable, metropolitan audience that the act was 'one of my proudest achievements'.

Such pathetic U-turns go right to the heart of the crisis of trust in British politics. Voters would respect politicians more if they held genuine convictions rather than revealing an oleaginous desire to ingratiate themselves with whatever audience they happen to be talking to at the time.

How government begins its electoral reform "debate"

The Government consultation on electoral reform hasn't even been launched, but already it seems ministers are pre-judging the debate and narrowing the range of options. It's especially disappointing to see Justice Minister Michael Wills, who gamely fought for deliberative elements in Brown's Governance of Britain programme supported by OK's Anthony Barnett, contributing to the growing perception that the whole thing's a stitch up. In a response to a question on voting reform in the House of Commons on Tuesday Wills criticised PR and lauded the current system:

I emphasise that proportional systems tend inherently to produce coalition Governments. That may be a good thing for some parties, but it might not be a good thing for the country. First-past-the-post systems tend to produce clear majority winners and stable government. Although they tend to hand power to the biggest minority, the practice of forming coalition Governments often tends to hand power to the smallest minority. There is nothing inherently fair about that.

He went along with a Tory MP who said that PR would let in "poisonous extremists" (ignorIng the inconvenient truth it's voters and not the system that lets in the BNP) and was approving of some utterly ridiculous comments by Labour MP Ken Purchase who took the classic establishment line that only "chattering classes" care about this debate and that "First past the post is the only sensible system" and we should therefore "do away with the flim-flam of proportional representation, which seems to take up an inordinate amount of time compared with other important matters" (in fact the latest poll shows, contra Purchase, that 61% of voters support a binding referendum on PR against 24%) 

Having gone along with these hoary attempts to shut down debate on PR and had a few pops of his own, the Minister assured the House it would be the voters of this country who decide which is the best and most legitimate system, and not party politicians. Hm based on this performance you'll forgive me for saying I'll believe it when I see it! 

Real Change: the open politics network

Saturday saw Real Change: the open politics network go public in an excellent speech given by Helena Kennedy to the Compass conference. She appealed to conference-goers to get involved with and support Real Change, which aims to encourage a movement of engaged citizens whether Labour supporters or not. Citizens who organise together to advance the values of the public interest, civil society and reform through open discussion and debate. We can no longer rely on the parties and the political elite to deliver reform for us, she said. We must instead rely on ourselves.

The idea behind Real Change, which I am involved in along with Anthony Barnett, Clare Coatman, Rosemary Bechler and others, is to have one thousand meetings to feed into a major people's convention in the autumn to draw up a minimal programme to clean up and reform politics, allowing citizens to audit parties and candidates on their commitment to reform in the run up to the next election. Behind the minimal is an ambitious radicalism, by holding parliament to account it will challenge the basis of British sovereignty. Baroness Kennedy is Chair of the steering committee of Real Change due to launch on 6 July. We'll be posting more on Real Change on OurKingdom over the next few days and I'll post the video of her speech as soon as it becomes available. In the meantime you can check out the plan here, and comment and feedback on the Real Change website and best of all...  join us.

(PS: read Stuart Weir's thoughts on the day with Compass here)

 

Alan Johnson orders review of ID cards

The Sunday Times suggests Alan Johnson may be paving the way for a U turn on ID cards, surely the cleverest single move he could make as Home Seretary. It would be a victory for civil liberties and common sense, save the country billions and improve Johnson's own prospects and those of his party. And best of all, it's free and easy.

From the ST:   

ALAN JOHNSON, the home secretary, has launched an urgent review of the £6 billion identity card (ID) scheme, paving the way for a possible U-turn on one of Labour’s flagship policies. Johnson, who was promoted in Gordon Brown’s latest cabinet reshuffle, is understood to be “sympathetic” to critics who claim identity cards will undermine civil liberties. The home secretary told officials that he wanted a “first principles” rethink of the plan, which was launched by Tony Blair following the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and has since been championed by Brown as a way of fighting terrorism. “Alan is more sympathetic to the civil liberties arguments than previous home secretaries,” said an insider.

Read on. 

Radical? Don't make me laugh

I've just blogged on Cif my response to Tom Watson MP's sudden Damascene conversion to electoral reform (of the unproportional AV kind), which, by wonderful coincidence, has happened at the same time his leader, Gordon Brown, has converted and not long before his party faces a thrashing in the polls. We deserve better than this!

Radical democracy and imagination - catch us at the Compass conference

The word "crisis" is perhaps one of the most over-used in the lexicon, but when it comes to the astonishing collapse of political and economic orthodoxies in recent months it rings undeniably true. Is it a "good" crisis? Established modes of thinking and organisation have been de-legitimated but it's not yet clear that anything radically new or different is going to take their place. Thinkers like Jeremy Gilbert have joined a growing call for new democratic forms to give individuals more meaningful control over their own lives, but so far the response from the political elite can best be described as "reforming so as to preserve".

Can anything positive be taken from the simultaneous collapse in trust in the political system and the financial markets? How do we build on this crisis to secure much better liberty and democracy in the 21st century? 

This Saturday you are invited to join a panel of thinkers and activists to discuss these questions and more at a workshop on "Radical democracy and imagination: people and power after the meltdown".

It's taking place 1.30 - 2.45pm at the excellent Compass conference at the Institute of Education in Bloomsbury. On the panel will be our very own Anthony Barnett (founder of openDemocracy, first director of Charter 88 and Co-Director of the Convention on Modern Liberty), Gerry Hassan (author, political commentator and columnist for the Scotsman), Liam Taylor (member of Climate Camp) and David Babbs (38 degrees) and hopefully we'll be joined by Suzanne Moore (Mail on Sunday) and Oxford philosopher Stuart White.

We'll be launching a major initiative at the conference to help build an open movement for democratic reform to influence candidates and parties before the next election. There are lots of other great speakers and workshops there too and only a small handful of tickets left. If you haven't got yours already, get one here.

Met accused of waterboarding suspects

This is incredible. Officers in Enflied have been accused of using Guantanamo-style torture techniques in a drugs investigation. If true, it's further proof, following on from the G20, that we have a serious problem in this country with police behaving like a brutal and unaccountable private militia. The Times reports:

Metropolitan Police officers subjected suspects to waterboarding, according to allegations at the centre of a major anti-corruption inquiry, The Times has learnt.

The torture claims are part of a wide-ranging investigation which also includes accusations that officers fabricated evidence and stole suspects' property. It has already led to the abandonment of a drug trial and the suspension of several police officers.

However, senior policing officials are most alarmed by the claim that officers in Enfield, North London, used the controversial CIA interrogation technique to simulate drowning. Scotland Yard is appointing a new borough commander in Enfield in a move that is being seen as an attempt by Sir Paul Stephenson, the Met Commissioner, to enforce a regime of "intrusive supervision".

Read more

Indy poll says Labour would do better under Johnson

The Independent features a poll today showing that under Alan Johnson's leadership the Labour party would be able to avert an outright Cameron victory at the next general election. If reports are to be believed the PLP made a big show of rallying around Gordon Brown in their Monday evening meeting with only a small number calling on him to go (though apparently many of the rebels weren't there and the reports seem to have mostly come from briefings by Brown's allies). The results of this poll, which provides the first evidence that Labour would do better under a new leader, are likely to strengthen the resolve of Labour rebels and provide further support to their view (if any more were needed) that Brown's exit is the best chance they have of preventing a Tory landslide. According to the Indy:

The findings were described as "stunning" by rebel Labour MPs last night. They believe it could influence Labour's agonised debate over whether it should back or sack the beleaguered Prime Minister.

Under Mr Brown's leadership, the Conservative Party would win an overall majority of 74, according to ComRes. But if Mr Johnson, the Home Secretary, replaced Mr Brown, the Tories would be six seats short of a majority in a hung parliament - raising the prospect of a deal between Labour and the Liberal Democrats to keep the Tories out. Mr Johnson is the only one of eight possible Labour leaders who could prevent an outright Tory victory. Under Jack Straw, David Miliband, Jon Cruddas, Ed Balls, Harriet Harman, James Purnell or Mr Brown, Mr Cameron would win a majority of between 10 and 94, ComRes found. Significantly, Labour would do better under Mr Straw, Mr Miliband, Mr Cruddas and Mr Balls than under Mr Brown.

Britain sends fascists to Europe

grim day for British democracy and a shocking indictment of the mainstream parties, especially New Labour which always took working class voters for granted, calculating that they've nowehere else to go. Result: they stayed at home. In the North West, where lifetime Nazi Nick Griffin was elected, the BNP vote was down 134959 to 132094, but turnout was down by nearly half a million. This is a failure of the mainstream parties to offer a positive reason to turnout and vote for them rather than a surge towards the BNP.

As so often in the world of political blogging, Sunny Hundal has one of the speediest and most sensible reactions with 6 points on the BNP posted on Cif:

1. The BNP is not increasing its votes. In both Yorkshire and the north-west, its total number of votes fell from 2004. This absolutely does not mean that more people are being seduced by the BNP's propaganda. It means that Labour's share of the vote collapsed and went to other parties, thereby helping the BNP under a proportional system. If the party makes a comeback then there's no reason why the BNP will continue to get its MEPs elected.

2. It may stop Labour ignoring its traditional working-class origins, now so comprehensively stomped over that they're migrating to other parties in droves. This is not an indictment of high immigration and multiculturalism, as no doubt some will call it, but of a centralised party ignoring local concerns. As Sarah Ditum points out, our media tell people every day that their crumbling infrastructure is the fault of those dastardly asylum seekers (rather than lack of investment, which might mean higher taxes). Immigration wouldn't be such a big issue if local councils presented information more quickly about population movements, so resources could be poured in or taken out in response, ensuring local public services didn't suffer. This is also a result of the lack of investment in social housing.

Read more.

Half-time analysis on the Labour meltdown

I've taken a selection of some of the more interesting commentary and analysis from today's papers.

Matthew D'Ancona in the Telegraph is still convinced Brown will be toppled but reckons it'll be the Parliamentary Labour Party that sticks the knife in now that the cowardly Cabinet has bottled it:

As instructive as precedents can be, this crisis really has no direct forebear. More accurately, it is so multi-layered, so bipolar, such a roller-coaster ride that it seems to contain and synthesise all previous leadership crises. Just when you think he's dead, Brown rises like Rasputin. Just when you think he's saved his skin, another minister resigns - for a different reason. Hazel Blears marches out in fury at her treatment over expenses, Jacqui Smith pre-empts the axe, John Hutton goes but stays loyal, Purnell goes and doesn't, Caroline Flint demands a L'Oréal promotion - "Because I'm Worth It" - and then, denied the prize, sends a resignation letter of awesome feminist fury. There is no choreography, no co-ordination, no theme. All the interventions have in common is that they weaken the Prime Minister yet further.

Don't trust MPs' constitutional poker

This is the full version of an article I wrote on the need for a citizens' convention which has just gone up on Comment is Free:

The last few weeks have witnessed the extraordinary spectacle of the two main party leaders attempting to outdo each other on democratic reform (with a lot borrowed from the Lib Dems but little credit going their way). At times it has felt like watching a bizarre game of constitutional poker - "I'll see your right of recall, and raise you one Lords reform" - played with no overall strategy or purpose than to appease the wrath of angry voters. With nothing less than the future of British democracy at stake, it's time that we, the people, called their bluff.

A bill introduced into Parliament today by constitutional campaigners aims to do just that. The Public Accountability and Political Ethics Bill would establish a citizens' convention composed of one hundred people selected by lot from the electoral register to look at ways to clean up and reform the UK's political system. They would deliberate on urgent questions of democratic reform before submitting their recommendations in a report to be enacted swiftly by Parliament unless, the Prime Minister, or Parliament, disagrees with them, in which case either of them, or 5% of citizens, could call a referendum on the issue.

Rebel MPs mobilise against Brown

Things moving very fast in Westminster. Just saw Brown put in a surprisingly OK performance in PMQs. Cameron said the Prime Minister's "dysfunctional" government in collapse and urged an election. A bullish Brown said the expenses crisis affected the "whole House" and accused Cameron of ignoring policy (he even managed to get some Labour MPs chanting "Nothing" when he repeatedly asked what Tories would do on the economy). Brown praised Alisdair Darling but refused to say whether he'd stay on as Chancellor. Clegg said it's "very dangerous to our democracy when people feel that there's no one in charge". Said the only choice is now between Lib Dems and the Tories. This was followed on BBC News by Peter Mandelson backing Brown and urging him to be strong. He also said, having met with business leaders, that the expenses crisis is damaging our image abroad and hence UK business and the economy. He thinks the responsibility to "move on" is the media's though and not for the voters in an election.

Now there are reports that a group of rebel Labour MPs have begun soliciting signatures for a round robin letter to be presented to the Prime Minister after the results of the local and European elections have come in on Monday. According to the Guardian they hope to get the support of 70 or 80 MPs, though apparently some backbenchers 'have seen the letter and are not signing it on account of a perception that the names already on the list are "too leftwing"'. Alongside rumours of a Blairite plot following the resignation of Hazel Blears - timed for the eve of the elections and just before PMQs as a barely disguised kick in the balls to Brown - the news that leftwing MPs are mobilising against the Prime Minister adds to the picture of a government in complete and utter meltdown.

Brown must go, says Guardian

On the eve of the European and local elections, the Guardian is calling for Labour to remove Gordon Brown and replace him with a leader capable of reforming a political system in crisis and saving the party from oblivion at the next general election. It follows a call by Polly Toynbee several weeks ago to oust him by June 5th and the paper's recent endorsement of the Lib Dems at the Euros.

I recommend checking out the full editorial. It reads like a sad lament to a wasted opportunity. It is damning on Brown's personal failures as a leader, but has some generous words when it comes to his handling of the economic crisis (far too generous in my view, since it doesn't recognise the role Brown played in feeding the bubble). What the leader really brings home is the utter hopelessness of Brown trying to present himself as the right man to lead a process of constitutional reform when he is so tainted and the serious damage this could do to the cause. I've highlighted the key passage in bold: it's a message any reformers thinking of jumping into bed with Brown would do well to heed.

The tragedy for Mr Brown and his party is that his chance to change it has gone. Although he still purports to be a radical, he has adopted the caution of an establishment man. He cannot lead a revolution against his own way of doing government, and yet a revolution is necessary. Grandstanding on his claims to good intentions, the prime minister demands the right to carry on, even as the cabinet implodes around him. The home secretary, the chancellor, and perhaps even the foreign secretary may go, and Labour faces its worst defeat in its history on Thursday, but the prime minister does not recognise his direct responsibility for the mayhem...

The blunt reality is that, even if he set out a grand programme of reform now, his association with it would doom its prospects. Proportional representation would transform parliament, but if Mr Brown put a referendum on the ballot, it would be defeated because he backed it. A draft constitutional renewal bill was published more than 12 months ago - but what has come of it? This week Mr Brown announced a national democratic council that might (to see it in a generous light) form the basis of the sort of constitutional convention that led to Scotland's modern parliament. But it is too late. The chance for him has passed.. Read on.

Vote for a Change

The Electoral Reform Society launches a major new campaign today for a referendum on the voting system. Vote for a Change has an ad in the Observer and the backing of Helena Kennedy, Stephen Fry, Brian Eno, Philip Pullman and lots of other high profile figures. As the website delcares:

THE EXPENSE CRISIS reveals a nation governed by a political elite that has stopped listening and who are accountable to no one but their party machines. Too many MPs seem more interested in changing their homes than changing the world.

Our society faces real problems - mass unemployment and growing poverty, the threat of climate chaos and an erosion of our civil liberties to name but three. These all require effective government working on behalf of the popular will.

Yet our whole political system is close to collapse. Just when the system needed to be strong it has been brought to its knees. Only the British people can put this right. We demand a new electoral system that makes everyone's vote count.

Alongside the next general election there should be a binding referendum on whether to change to a new more proportional electoral system. This should be drawn up by a large jury of randomly selected citizens, given the time and information to deliberate on what voting system and other changes would make parliament more accountable to citizens.

Sign up at: http://www.voteforachange.co.uk/

Update: Tory MP Douglas Carswell, whose book The Plan has had a clear influence on David Cameron's programme for reform, seems to be coming round to the idea of PR

Fiddling your expenses 101 - a lesson from the Whips

This just gets more and more outrageous, doesn't it? Via the Evening Standard's Paul Waugh comes this transcript of Labour MP Jane Griffths describing to Radio 4 programme The Report how party whips taught her to abuse the expenses system.

"I don't drive a car, I never have, so didn't claim any mileage allowance for travel in the constituency. My whip said to me 'You don't claim mileage, why not?'

"I said 'well, because I don't drive a car'. He said 'You must get a taxi sometimes?' I said 'I do sometimes but not that often'. '

"No,' he said, 'There's an allowance of £250 per month for taxis and you don't have to give receipts, you just fill in a form that says £250 for taxis. And he said 'I want you to claim that'.

"So I did because it would get the whips off my back telling me to claim for things. So I had that money that morally I shouldn't have".

Waugh has done the maths: "That's a cool £3,000 a year effectively stolen from the taxpayer. Over a four-year term, that's £12,000. Will Ms Griffiths now tell us who the whip was? Or does she fear that Plod will be at her door too?" From the picture that has emerged over the last few weeks, this was clearly part of a pattern of behaviour where those that didn't fiddle were encouraged to do so by their more practiced colleagues who would make them feel guilty for letting the side down and making others look bad. The whole culture, not just a few individuals, has been corrupt and corrupting, starting at the head with the Speaker and the party whips. You can listen to the Radio 4 show, which contains an account of former Fees Office staff, MPs and others on how the scandal was allowed to develop, here.
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