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A wilder constitution?

Stuart Weir
26 September 2008
Stuart Weir (Cambridge, Democratic Audit): It is said that Chris Bryant, the Labour MP for The Rhonda Valley, presented his constitutional reform package for Labour's manifesto to Downing Street, saying "It's a bit wild", and Downing Street replied "make it wilder."  Well his reforms have hit the spot with the Guardian, who blazoned them across their front page, but wild they aren't. It is pleasing to know that the succession to the throne will be made free of discrimination on grounds of gender or faith, but they do stop well short of ending an anomalous hereditary monarchy and discrimination against second and subsequent children. Now that, in Labour terms, would have been wild.
 
It is important to be fair.  Bryant was clearly working within the inhibiting prejudices of his party and under the brooding presence of the Prime Minister and his coterie. Yet the idea of handing the role and powers of the Privy Council to Parliament is both a significant and bold reform, and I hope that they would be bolder still and not keep it on as a ceremonial relic.  The Council is an opaque executive and law-making organ through which much important governance, domestic and foreign, is conducted, usually subject to little or no democratic scrutiny.  Reform of the House of Lords as a fully elected second chamber is also a significant part of the agenda, as I guess are the drab Constitutional Renewal Bill compromises.
 
It is what is not there, even on a small scale, that I find depressing.  Why no proposals for electoral reform in local government, even simply giving local authorities themselves the power to decide on change in their area?  Why no re-adjustment of the tax take to give local government a greater share of public resources along with more autonomy?  Why not move the House of Lords reform agenda forward to make it harder for the Tories to resile from their fine words?  
 
On the larger scale of course it is even more depressing. The Governance green paper in July 2007 showed that Brown knows what ought to be done - to re-balance power between the executive and Parliament on the one hand, and local government on the other.  There is no point of giving Parliament powers if the executive still determines how they are to be used.  There is no point in giving local authorities marginally more discretion when the executive tells them what do and starves them of resources. There is no point in promising reform of the royal prerogative if the executive preserves final powers over making war or signing treaties and does nothing about the rest.  And finally, why not pledge now to introduce electoral reform for the Commons, even if it is probably the Alternative Vote, after the next election?
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