And then there were three: the Power 2010 pledge

English Votes on English Laws and Power 2010
David Rickard
25 February 2010
OK in depth

So ‘English Votes on English Laws’ (EVoEL) duly made it into the list of the top-five proposals for political reform that were to form the basis of the ‘Power 2010 Pledge’, which all candidates at the election were going to be asked to support. Thanks to everyone who supported it. Except that this Pledge now appears to have been unexpectedly transformed into a commitment to back only a majority (at least three) of the reforms. As EVoEL finished fourth in the poll, this has understandably led some to conclude that Power 2010 has tried to ‘fix’ the result in such a way as to sideline EVoEL, just as – some allege – its political allies tried to fix the vote itself to try to bump EVoEL out of the top five. Rather unfortunate, in this context, that Power 2010 has now adopted the phrase ‘let’s fix it, not fiddle it’ as its tag line, with the ambiguity of the word ‘fix’ that will surely provoke mockery.

I’m reminded of my previous comparison of the Power 2010 process to a TV talent show, in which thousands of celebrity wannabes are eventually whittled down to a list of finalists by a ‘public vote’, but in which the real decision makers try all sorts of ruses to make sure their favourite candidates win through. So, we thought we were down to a final list of five; but, hey, let’s allow people to commit to only three, and that way the real contenders (the top three in the public vote) will prevail. OK, that’s maybe not how the reasoning went in reality – I wasn’t a fly on the walls of the smoke-filled room (or should that be ‘smoke-free’?). But the impression of ‘no smoke without fire’ has inescapably been created, and it’s a PR disaster for Power 2010 if nothing else.

But sidestepping the issue of whether it is legitimate to concentrate on getting voters and politicians to agree to only three out of the top five, what I want to ask here is whether it is coherent. Surely, this lessens the overall impact and reforming momentum of the Pledge, which would have come from its being a joined-up programme – ‘the people’s manifesto’, if you like – which prospective MPs should have been asked to endorse, just as they assume that voters are giving them a mandate to implement their whole manifesto by marking a single cross against their name.

Instead, by allowing election candidates and its own supporters to ‘pick and mix’ between those reform ideas they can accept and those they can’t, Power 2010 is compounding the impression that the proposals in the Pledge are a random selection with no internal rationale or realistic plan for implementation. And the support for each measure from those who will be elected to the next Parliament will be diluted by the fact they will have been asked to commit to only 60% of the proposals.

But perhaps Power 2010 and its close supporters actually don’t believe that the five winning proposals (PR, rolling back the database state, an elected Upper House, EVoEL and a written constitution) can be worked up into a coherent programme for reform. They clearly seem to think that EVoEL in itself is an incoherent, impractical idea that raises more questions than it solves. Indeed, they take their lead in this from the proponents of an English parliament, who likewise dismiss EVoEL as an unsatisfactory, unworkable idea, which they backed in the Power 2010 poll only to make sure that the English democratic deficit remained on the agenda.

But it’s not an adequate response to the dilemma of how to integrate the messy patch-up job that is EVoEL with the more root-and-branch reforms that also made the top five if you just give up and allow everyone to support only the measures they backed and not those that won in the ‘public vote’, however flawed this was as a means to determine the genuine popularity or validity of the measures concerned.

What I would like to suggest here is that it is possible to turn EVoEL into a coherent reform proposal in its own right and to integrate it with the other measures in the Pledge of Five; indeed, that it is only when EVoEL is integrated with the other elements of the Pledge that this will achieve its true potential as a driver of real change.

First of all, we need to be clear about what exactly we mean by EVoEL. In the Power 2010 Pledge as it is now presented, this measure is defined as follows: “allow only English MPs to vote on English laws”. The definition was more inclusive when the measure was voted through to the online poll via the deliberation carried out in December last year: “Allowing only English MPs to vote on matters affecting only England and only English and Welsh MPs to vote on matters affecting only England and Wales”.

All reference to the Welsh dimension was lost when the proposal went forward to the online poll. However, even that did not do justice to the multi-national patchwork of much UK legislation, some of which relates to England, Wales and Northern Ireland but not Scotland; or to Great Britain but not N. Ireland. The extended definition of this proposal therefore should read something like the following: ‘Only MPs whose constituents are directly affected by legislation should vote on it’, or ‘legislation by representative democracy’ (LRD) for short. Few people would disagree with such a proposal, which merely expresses basic tenets of representative democracy.

However, instead of extending the definition of ‘EVoEL’ to encompass this wider constitutional anomaly affecting all of the UK’s nations, the Power 2010 vote narrowed its definition to refer only to the English dimension – the English admittedly being the worst affected by this anomaly. It is, to say the least, somewhat ironic that Power 2010 should have changed the definition of the measure at the public-vote stage in such a way as to make it appear more of a separate, England-only issue compared with the systemic proposals favoured by reformers; and have thereby helped to create the current dilemma whereby they are unwilling to persuade voters and candidates to commit unequivocally to all five measures largely because of the exclusively English focus for EVoEL they themselves have adopted.

By contrast, if one defines this measure as ‘LRD’, as I would have it, then it emerges as an issue of democratic representation that is entirely complementary to the proposals for PR and an elected Second House. Indeed, it would be utterly inconsistent to try to introduce a properly proportional electoral system and an elected Second House without remediating the distortions to representative democracy brought about by the UK’s multi-national legislative and governmental framework. Proportional representation implies that elected representatives are more answerable to voters for their decisions, a principle which is undermined by the West Lothian Question in its fully multi-national acception just as much as an England-only problem. Similarly, if an elected House of Lords or Senate allowed its representatives from across the UK to make revisions to legislation that did not affect those who had voted for them, this would violate the principle of democratic representation that was the reason for establishing an elected Upper House in the first place. A broader definition and implementation of EVoEL are therefore not only consistent with PR and an elected Second Chamber but a precondition for those measures to achieve the rebalancing of British representative democracy they are intended to bring about.

What about the second most popular proposal in the top five: “Scrap ID cards and roll back the database state”, as it presently reads? The connection with EVoEL is not as obvious as with the two other proposals just discussed. But at a basic level, the growth of the database state can be seen as a by-product of the increasing lack of democratic accountability of government and politicians. At a more profound level, it can be interpreted, among other things, as an expression of the crisis of national identity and cohesion at the heart of the British state that is a consequence of devolution, the reaffirmation of Englishness, mass immigration, declining British international influence, home-grown Islamic-inspired terrorism and globalisation. The database state is one that has lost the sense of its own moral and political authority, which it is trying to reassert in the form of technology-enabled supervisory control legitimated by an appeal to national security.

The point I would stress here is that the database state is also the British state and that it is one of the darker manifestations of the British establishment’s alienated will to power: a system of power that has become deeply disconnected from the population that it sees itself as appointed to govern. It is this system that Power 2010 aims to radically reform and reconnect with the people; and one of the most profound symptoms of this alienation of British power is its largely unspoken will to suppress English nationhood, identity and democratic heritage.

In this sense, the fundamental goals of Power 2010 and the movement for English-national democracy are deeply co-terminous – the only, but significant, difference being that Power 2010 and related movements such as Charter 88 and Unlock Democracy have tended to articulate their objectives in relation to a continuing British ‘nation-state’. Civic English nationalism, by contrast, tends to view that Britain as dead, post-devolution, and regards all attempts to reinvent it as just another way in which the alienated British establishment in its various forms is endeavouring to suppress a re-emerging English-national consciousness and democracy. Therefore, so long as the liberal reform movement continues to try, or appear to try, to ignore the English dimension of Britain’s dysfunctional system of governance, it will arouse only the deepest distrust from a cause that it ought to espouse as one of its most central and cherished aims: the restoration of fair democracy for the UK’s largest nation.

So rolling back the database state is a fundamental aspect of the movement towards a new constitutional dispensation; but an integral aspect of that dispensation must be to address and provide expression for aspirations towards English self-governance. But what of the fifth-placed Power 2010 proposal: that of a written constitution? Logically, a written constitution underpins all the other reforms in the top five, in that it would set out the relations between the people, Parliament and the executive; between the legislature and the Upper House; between the UK’s nations, including England, and the central state; and the fundamental rights of the British citizen and their protection through an independent judiciary.

But actually, in my view, it is this proposal, not EVoEL, that is the real joker in the Power 2010 pack, as it raises so many profound issues that it is almost inconceivable that it could be realised. Not least among the intractable problems with a new British Constitution are the various national questions, including the English one. The relationships between the UK’s nations and the centre are in a state of centrifugal flux, and anything that seeks to impose a lasting, binding framework defining the rights and status of the nations in relation to a sovereign British ‘nation-state’ is likely to be deeply unpopular and controversial in all of the UK’s nations.

Nonetheless, if a written constitution is on the cards, then it would have to get to grips with the national questions; and EVoEL, in my broader understanding of it, can be seen as a first tentative step in that direction, in that it seeks to improve the representation of all of the UK’s nations within the existing processes of British governance.

Clearly, the actual practical implementation of the limited proposal of EVoEL, or LRD, within the present House of Commons would be fraught with difficulties. From a procedural point of view, however, there are plenty of ideas on the table, including one of my own. The real problem is EVoEL’s potential to bring about a constitutional crisis or paralysis in government if, for example, Labour had a majority of UK MPs but not of English MPs. But really, to argue that such a situation would automatically lead to a break-down in the government of England, and indeed the collapse of the UK government, partakes of the same logic that says you need to retain the First Past the Post voting system because it provides for strong (because unrepresentative) government.

What would be required in a system of differing UK and English majorities would simply be a form of coalition government or inter-party co-operation in English matters. This would be essentially no different than the consequences of PR or an elected House of Lords, where more cross-party agreement would be needed to complete parliamentary business. One of the by-products of fairer democratic representation in a pluralist society is the replacement of outdated one-party rule by multi-party collaboration. And that enhanced democracy includes fairer representation for England and the other nations in matters that concern them in particular and not the whole of the UK.

So EVoEL is not some crackpot idea appealing to the grievances of a political fringe but should take pride of place at the centre of the Power 2010 Pledge of five interdependent ideas for constitutional and political reform. The broader definition of EVoEL I have set out as ‘legislation by representative democracy’ (LRD) is in any case already at the heart of everything Power 2010 stands for. It may well turn out that EVoEL /LRD is impractical within the present parliamentary system; but then that’s what Power 2010 is seeking to radically reform. And whatever new structures evolve in place of the present dysfunctional system, they will have to provide fair democratic representation for England and the UK’s other nations.

So will Power 2010 now declare itself in favour of EVoEL, or LRD, and try to repair the damage that has been done by appearing once again to ignore the English Question by allowing its supporters and election candidates to omit it from the Power 2010 Pledge? EVoEL is an imperfect proposal, but Power 2010 is an imperfect process. But without allying itself to the cause of English democracy, both that cause and Power 2010 will be weaker and less likely to achieve their longer-term goals.

EVoEL is just the beginning of a long road. But does Power 2010 wish to walk it?

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