Constitutional crumbs from the Prime Minister are not enough

Gordon Brown's plans for a 'sovereignty of the people' and electoral reform should not be taken at face value (from CiF)
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
9 February 2010

Cross-posted from this morning's Comment is Free a response to Peter Facey's post on Gordon Brown

What should we make of the prime minister's call on the morning of 2 February for a constitutional revolution, replacing parliamentary sovereignty with the "sovereignty of the people"? With the first step a referendum on replacing first-past-the-post system with alternative vote?

Peter Facey, the director of Unlock Democracy, says in Comment is Freethat we should "welcome any sign that Labour is at last rediscovering its radical zeal".

"Dismissing Brown's statement of intent out of hand", he says, "will only make it harder" to achieve reform and "if we are serious about change… it is incumbent on us to suspend cynicism".

When he dismisses his opponents as "cynics" he puts a web link to me. But despite the effort he's put into achieving political reform, Facey should not now trumpet Gordon Brown as the most radical prime minister since Lloyd George.

He is wrong in four respects: I'm not a cynic; he is foolish to take Brown's speech at face value; he is mistaken to claim "thinking Labour" is now in the ascendant (it is David Miliband and Ed Balls not Jack Straw who should be in his firing line); above all, he is wrong to tell democrats to support Brown's latest wheeze. Reformers should organise public anger with New Labour into a growing movement for change, avoiding any sense of slavish gratitude for constitutional crumbs.

But I agree with Facey that whenever we can we should welcome offers of reform from those in power. This was one reason why Charter 88 was relatively successful – because it was not cynical. But to be credible we must not suspend our judgment.

Thus he and I agreed to cheer Brown's original proposals and green paper on constitutional renewal in 2007. Because, along with updating antique powers, Brown offered a spark of democracy with independent deliberative input from the public. Any release of public energy outside of the control of Westminster deserved to be encouraged.

Alas, Brown asphyxiated the hope he then offered. This time, there was no such life to his proposed new constitution. Instead of popular participation Brown solemnly announced that he has asked the cabinet secretary to take a look. Politics must be measured by momentum. In terms of democracy last week's speech marked a clear retreat from 2007, decorated with some more far-reaching phrases.

It is Brown who is the cynic. He knows a rushed proposal for a referendum is likely to be turned down in the Lords, if it passes the Commons. But that's the point: this will allow him to position himself as the "outsider" who wants "change" as against the horrid Tories who want things to stay the way they are. Should this blatant manoeuvre succeed electorally, as it might with our idiotic media, then things will stay delightfully just as they are, with no reform of the voting system and Brown back in No 10.

One could hardly be more cynical. If proof were needed, Brown gave it on the afternoon of 2 February. He appeared before the Commons liaison committee where Tony Wright asked him why, if he favoured fixed-term parliaments, he didn't just announce the date of the coming election and be done with it. Such an important reform, Brown replied with a straight face, would have to await "a written constitution". To tell us we must embrace this as the "reawakening of radical zeal" is take us for fools.

Brown had a great opportunity. If he had said when the expenses scandal broke that this proved his point about the need to cast aside a corrupted sovereignty of parliament to replace it, root and branch, with the sovereignty of the people, that would have pulled the rug from under Cameron. The prime minister was offered a radical opportunity in 2009 such as rarely come to political leaders. He refused it and embraced Peter Mandelson. That is why the radicalism in his speeches now sound as convincing as a tin drum.

Facey sings the praise of Compass, Progress and the Fabians as the coming power brokers of Labour policy. Sunder Katwala and Neal Lawson are outstanding advocates of democratic reform – but does their influence hold sway over even their own generation in the cabinet? Facey attacks Jack Straw. But had Brown been determined to drive through the green paper, Straw would have acquiesced and delivered – just as he did with Blair on Iraq. Two key perpetrators of democratic roll-back are David Miliband and Ed Balls, the leading contenders for the succession. Has Miliband ever uttered a single word in favour of electoral reform or a democratic constitution to distance himself from Blairite love of office? Balls is perhaps unfairly fingered as the arch behind-the-scenes opponent. The low fact is that both sought the future votes of backbench MPs who love allowances, second jobs and safe seats. Each was well aware of the corruption of the Commons when Brown became premier, when together they had to chance to challenge the old regime. The came, they thought, they capitulated.

They will eat the harvest. David Cameron's game is clear. He will keep first past the post but equal the size of constituencies – what could be fairer? To this he has added cutting the number of MPs, which is bound to be popular. He will push through re-drawing the boundaries as fast as Labour did the Scottish parliament. Then he'll call another election. Even if he only retains his current a 7-8% lead this will give him a crushing majority under a "fair" winner-takes-all system. The realignment of British politics which Miliband and Balls could have led had they the gumption will then be imposed by others.

Facey says: "From Magna Carta onwards, the story of England and the UK has been one of moving slowly away from a despotic system and towards a system rooted in popular sovereignty." This is the cliched Whig view which, if true, would make campaigning redundant in view of the stately progress of progress itself. Even Brown grasps that British power (in contrast to Scottish) has determinedly resisted popular sovereignty and always threatens reaction. Our history mixes revolutions, wars, imperialism, periods of rapid change, regression and institutional paralysis. Today, the exceptionally swift and far-reaching but incoherent reforms of early New Labour have created a constitutional crisis and deepened a democratic one.

The result could well be a long period of reaction as bankers take home their bonuses while the rest of us are kept under pre-emptive surveillance by the database state. To prevent this we need to build a popular movement for rights, liberty and democracy. Hopefully, Power 2010 will be a step in this direction. What's clear is that the starting point needs to be well-justified anger at the way we are being governed by New Labour.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


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