You can’t be a half-iconoclast

If there's a problem with the Unspoken Constitution its that it barely qualifies as satire. The shenanigans surrounding MPs' expenses, Carter-Ruck's single handed attempt to rewrite the UK constitution to favour their client Trafigura and this torrid little paper sneaked out by the Ministry of Justice today (which patiently explains why Royal Prerogative powers are, in fact, all wonderful and the only thing that stands between us and authoritarianism), all amply illustrate that Stuart Weir and co's attempt to write the famously unwritten constitution is more a reflection of reality than an exaggeration of it. A Modest Proposal is satire. Yes, Minister and The Thick of It are satires. The Unspoken Constitution is merely frank.

I have to admit to finding this week somewhat depressing in that it is clear that a great many MPs have returned from recess determined to shut down any further discussion about reform and that, to an extent, they are succeeding. The media itself has been very helpful in this respect, detailing the process almost moment-to-moment but almost entirely lacking in analysis. Let us not forget that the people who are now complaining about the unfairness of Sir Thomas Legg applying new rules to them retrospectively are for the most part the same people who attempted to keep this little scam of theirs shrouded in secrecy - in defiance of the law - for years. All the indications are that for the most part, they still haven't learned why that was an utterly stupid and damaging thing to do.

Where next for Lords reform?

A cynic might conclude that Jack Straw's appointment to the Ministry of Justice in 2007 was a calculated move to create the illusion of progress while ensuring that nothing of substance actually happened. Despite Gordon Brown launching his premiership off the back of democratic renewal, the Ministry's productivity over the past two years that been startlingly low. The Constitutional Renewal Bill, now rebranded as the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, will finally get its moment in the legislative sun in the next Parliamentary session, but will struggle to pass all the hurdles in time for a May general election. It will apparently include clauses to remove the last remaining hereditary peers. As for introducing elections to the second chamber, Straw ruled out legislating for that before a general election over a year ago.

At his Unlock Democracy/Guardian seminar yesterday however, Straw did at least indicate that the Commons might get sight of a draft bill over the next few months and might even get the opportunity to vote on some specific options for reform. It is a step forward, but a tiny one.

As for what the government line actually is on Lords reform, we are sadly no wiser than we were last year when the Lords reform white paper was published. Straw did at least indicate that the government preferred an "open or semi-open" regional list system to elect the Lords (the white paper had expressed no preference, worryingly even going so far as to reopen the possibility of using first past the post which Wakeham ruled out in 1999). He also indicated that there would be no formal vote on whether to have an 80% or 100% elected second chamber, the two options agreed by the Commons in 2007. Instead, his approach would be to introduce elected members in phases and defer the decision on whether to remove the last few appointed peers until the last possible moment, in 12-15 years.

Do you “deserve” your rights?

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!): Anyone who thinks our civil liberties will be any better protected by a Conservative Government should think again. Speaking in Bangor (the Northern Ireland flavour) on Friday, the News Letter reports Shadow Home Secretary Dominic Grieve saying:

… there is “a rights culture” which is “out of control”, not just in Ulster, but throughout the UK.

It did not help that “the undeserving in society” can often use rights legislation for personal gain, he added.

The Conservatives, he suggested, intend to create a UK Bill of Rights which would have in-built safeguards to prevent those “whose own behaviour is lacking” from abusing the powers.


I’m used to people from across the political spectrum differentiating between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor when it comes to welfare but not when it comes to fundamental rights. This rhetoric even goes beyond the talk about “rights and duties.”

Has David Davis' stand backfired?

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!): That is certainly the conclusion of Lib Dem blogger and New Statesman columnist Jonathan Calder:

"It is now clear that Davis's political suicide bombings damaged his career and - far more important - has made it easier for the enemies of liberty in the Conservative Party (a club with a large and thriving membership) to prevail.

"Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity."

Why this conclusion? This week the Conservative Shadow Home Secretary has announced proposals to make it easier for the police to access surveillance powers. Reading Davis' campaign website you could certainly be forgiven for thinking that he was opposed to such measures.

The key word that Grieve is keen to emphasise is "proportionality," yet there is already growing evidence that the existing RIPA regulations allow public bodies to monitor the public in a completely disproportionate manner. These are powers which are currently being handed out to councils on the nod, for goodness' sake; just how can the police be said to be restrained?  Surely you don't have to be an anti-police paranoiac to think that these are precisely the sort of police powers which should be tightly regulated?

I don't automatically condemn Davis in the way that Calder does; it may well be that his decision to resign was spurred by the fact that he had already lost this particular battle in the Shadow Cabinet. He has also given us a pretty colossal stick to beat Cameron with, should we choose to use it. But for the sake of his reputation and the faith in which hundreds of individuals put in him, he really ought to respond to this sooner rather than later.

Miliband and the Liberal Democrats

James Graham (Quaequam Blog): I'm probably one of the most pro-Labour Lib Dems you are ever likely to meet. A Georgist and an electoral reformer, I'm very conscious of the fact that I am likely to meet more fellow travellers within Labour than the Conservatives (although not as many as I'd like). Despite spending the day knocking up voters in a hopeless (for us) Lib Dem-Labour marginal, in the evening on 1 May 1997 I cheered as loudly as anyone when it became apparent that the Tories were finally on their way out.

What, then, should I make of the prospect of a Miliband Premiership, given his stated aim of uniting the traditions of social democracy and radical liberalism "into a single narrative"? - an approach that like other matters appears in a transparently clear but nonetheless coded form in his Guardian article.

Second chamber must be a check, not a cheerleader

James Graham (Unlock Democracy): The latest Lords reform white paper is both a step forward and a step back.  It is positive in that for first time ever an official government document is unambiguously in favour of second chamber which is either mostly or fully elected.  It also nails the lie about an elected second chamber being a threat to Commons primacy:

The Government welcomes a confident and assertive second chamber. It sees this as further enhancing our democracy and something that is entirely consistent with the primacy of the House of Commons. That primacy rests in the fact that the Government of the day is formed from the party or parties that can command a majority in the House of Commons. It also rests in the Parliament Acts and in the financial privilege of the House of Commons. The Prime Minister and most senior ministers are also drawn from the House of Commons. A more assertive second chamber, operating within its current powers, would not threaten primacy.

AV: So much pain for so little gain

James Graham (Quaqeuam blog): Stuart Weir's summary of the Combining All Our Strengths seminar on electoral reform was interesting, but it was disappointing to hear so much consensus (group think?) around the idea that the only electoral game in town is the alternative vote. It is disappointing because we have heard this coming out of the Labour camp and some senior Lib Dems for several years now and yet so little progress has been made. If a Labour government was ever going to make this reform, it would have had to have done so from a position of strength not at a time when it is most vulnerable.
 
Usually presented as the ultimate insider fix, if Labour reformers are serious about this by now they should be able to name at least 100 Labour MPs who are signed up to AV. The fact that instead we just hear the names of the usual suspects (Peter Hain, Charles Clarke, John Denham, possibly Jack Straw on a good day) suggests that the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform (LCER), Fabians et al really ought to spend a little less time telling the rest of us to fall in line and a little more time shoring up their own support.
 
I would summarise the push for AV as a call for a lot of pain in exchange for very little gain. Pushing through this reform will mean facing down the combined might of every single minority party, the Conservatives, the media and a large proportion of the Labour Party. Even if the Lib Dem leadership were convinced of this strategy (which I doubt), a lot of the grassroots will be in uproar. It will mean convincing the potential activist base to curb their enthusiasm and compromise on almost everything that they believe in - that tends not to work as much of a motivator. For every supporter of first past the post who might be prepared to compromise on AV there will be a supporter of proportional representation who would not.