Don't trust MPs' constitutional poker

Guy Aitchison
3 June 2009

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.

The campaign, spearheaded by Unlock Democracy, was launched by a cross-party group of politicians in Westminster yesterday. There was broad agreement on which reforms are needed if not on their practical application. On one point they were unanimous: decisions on what kind of democracy we have should be made by the people and not by the very same parties and politicians who got us into this mess in the first place.

Gordon Brown's National Council for Democratic Renewal which he announced single-handedly, arbitrarily even, in interviews with the BBC over the last few days bears little resemblance to what's needed. Brown told The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, that the Council would initially be made up of ministers before bringing in "experts", much like the National Economic Council. On the Today programme the next day he made the tiniest of nods towards the need for popular involvement when he said he planned to "to invite large numbers of people from outside the political system" onto the Council to help him "move forward with major change as quickly as possible".

Reading the Prime Minister's pronouncements, it's hard to disagree with Helena Kennedy, who appeared on Andrew Marr Show with Brown. The Prime Minister, she said, simply does not understand the scale of the disconnect between people and politicians. Brown's hazy proposals leave much unclear, for example, Who will sit on this Council and what will its remit be?  Will its conclusions be ratified by referendum?  And will the government be free to cherry pick from its proposals or will there be a presumption that they will be considered as a whole? I suspect what Brown envisions is a council of the great and the good to offer him advice as he, wise father of the nation, carries out the reforms he's known we've needed all along. If you can think of a body less likely to restore public confidence in democracy than a quango of advisors summoned by a lame duck prime minister and modelled on the "National Economic Council" then I'd be interested to hear it.

In interviews Brown has been keen to show off his credentials as a reformer, claiming to be a long-standing supporter of freedom of information and advocate of a written constitution. It's not being cynical to point out how hollow and hypocritical these claims are. Without being elected, Brown came to power two years ago pledging democratic renewal before continuing Labour's authoritarian programme of centralising power and dismantling civil liberties, pushing outrageously illiberal laws like 42 days detention without charge and turning the House of Commons into what Diane Abbott memorably described as a "bazzaar" so as to bully and bribe them through.  Norman Lamb pointed out that the Prime Minister had been fighting a two year campaign against him to block the application of the Freedom of Information Act so as to prevent the release of information on who the Prime Minister meets with. A Prime Minister who doesn't accept the democratic principles established in his own government's legislation is hardly the person to carry out the root and branch reform that's needed.

Douglas Carswell showed he grasped the scale of the problem when he described Westminster as "stinking and rotten". Decisions are not made by Parliament but by "clowns pretending to be ministers" who are just "apologists for the quango state", whilst 7 out of 10 MPs effectively have a "job for life" because of an electoral system which allows the party hierarchy to award to the most supine and obedient of its members with safe seats. Having been something of a fringe figure in the parliamentary Tory party, Carswell is now seeing much of the reform programme he and Dan Hannan outlined in their book The Plan:12 months to renew Britain apparently being adopted by David Cameron. Although as a Tory coming round to proportional representation and clearly determined that his party should be more "anti-establishment" he may have his work cut out, as Lamb pointed out.

This is especially true as Cameron's recent pronouncements suggest he's far keener on nice sounding rhetoric than reforms that would introduce genuinely deliberative and participatory elements into our democracy and significantly shift power away from the executive. If Cameron were halfway serious about returning "power to the powerless" as he claims he'd back the call for a citizens' convention. The danger of an immediate general election, which Cameron views as the best solution to the democratic crisis, is that it provides an excuse to return to business as usual and the once in a lifetime opportunity for reform will have been squandered, as Caroline Lucas MEP, the fourth speaker at the Bill's launch, warned in a short, eloquent speech of support.

How can we seize what Helena Kennedy called a democratic moment? We need to organise as citizens independently of parties, corporate media and the formal structures of political power. We need to pressure parties and candidates to back reforms and initiatives like the citizens' convention and hold them to their promises after the next election before the inevitable seduction of power and patronage kicks in.

In the short term we should also call for an immediate freeze on appointments to the House of Lords until it's reformed. On the Andrew Marr show Brown repeatedly failed to answer the question of whether there exists a "lavender list" of Blair's pals who have been promised lordships which Brown has made a commitment to honour. The last thing we need is more cronies in the Lords blocking reform!

Ron Bailey, who is orchestrating the Public Accountability Bill campaign, is writing to the party leaders this week asking them to give the Bill time and to all 646 MPs asking them to support it. With the "political will", he said, "this Bill can become law before recess". The way is opening. But this proposal will really test the will of the political elite to let go and trust the people. It is unlikely that they will do so unless they are pushed to by demanding and not just angry citizens.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData