A historic chance to renew our politics

In a guest post, Nick Clegg, leader of the UK Liberal Democrats, sets out his plans for political and democratic reform ahead of the election on Thursday.
Nick Clegg
4 May 2010

OurKingdom is a cross-spectrum site, open to all good arguments concerned with democracy, liberty and power in the UK, from those in political parties - including their leaders - or in none. To our delight Nick Clegg has offered us this post. We are writing to the leaders of the other main parties and the Greens for their views on the political reform of the UK at this crucial moment when the people seem to be saying they want the system to change.

Votes have not yet been cast, let alone counted, and yet some political reformers are already rejoicing. That’s because this campaign has exposed, more clearly than ever, the central truth about our electoral system: it is bust. But, for me, that’s not yet a reason to celebrate. It’s a reason to work harder than ever in the next few hours to turn the hope that things can change into reality. I hope you’ll help me.

It is now clear that people across the country are looking for change, and that they do not divide neatly into those who support the red team and those who support the blue team. They want politics that goes beyond narrow tribalism and offers them real choice, and they will not be happy to return to the old, discredited way of doing things. Yes, much of the anger about politics began with the heinous abuses of MPs’ expenses, but it is more than that: people want a total clean up of a system that keeps power locked in government, and that breeds arrogance among those who are meant to serve them.  

That is the programme for reform the Liberal Democrats are offering at this election. Starting with safe seats. It’s no surprise that MPs in the safest seats were three times more likely to have made embarrassing or unacceptable claims than those in the most marginal seats. If politicians are returned to parliament election after election with only a minority of support from their constituents – in seats where frankly you could stick a red or blue rosette on the back of a donkey and it would win – then of course they end up believing they have nothing to fear from voters 

If we want to ensure MPs don’t abuse their positions, we must abolish jobs for life in politics. Liberal Democrats will do that by introducing fair votes so every vote counts. And, if an MP has been found to be corrupt, we’ll establish the power of recall so their constituents can trigger a by-election.

I’m also determined that we clean up party funding. The relationship between money and power has hollowed out our democracy. We had a chance to fix it: following the cross-party talks chaired by Sir Hayden Phillips we had a deal on the table that would have massively reduced the influence of big money. But Labour and the Conservatives sabotaged that deal, one determined to protect its union paymasters, the other thinking of its sugar daddy in Belize.

That stitch up has become all too familiar in Westminster. The two old parties blocked us on recall, and they blocked us when we put forward proposals to clamp down on lobbying in Parliament too. And on the House of Lords, despite all of the parties having agreed that the hereditary principle must go, Labour has failed to get rid of it and David Cameron has relegated reform to a “third term priority”. Only the Liberal Democrats will act, replacing the Lords with a directly elected senate.

It’s the same story when it comes to dispersing power away from Whitehall and Westminster: empty promises from the other parties, real commitment from us. Gordon Brown and David Cameron have learnt to parrot the language of localism, but neither will commit to the fundamental reforms needed to empower individuals and their communities. There is no point calling on people to take more responsibility for their neighbourhoods unless you give them the tools to do so. Liberal Democrats will hand people back power over the services they use and the decisions that affect them – health, housing, police, for instance – but, crucially, we’ll also give councils much more power to raise their own taxes rather than be dependent on grants. Where there is money there is power, and without the capacity to raise the first, local government still lacks in the last.

Finally, I believe passionately that renewal of our politics is central to the restoration of our freedoms. Untrammelled executive authority has allowed Labour, and the Conservatives before them, to sacrifice some of the most basic principles of British justice. Control orders, ID cards, a DNA database which contains three quarters of young black men’s profiles, as well as holding data from a million people who haven’t done anything wrong – these are all the hallmarks of a government that has forgotten what power is for.

Liberal Democrats will bring in a Freedom Bill, repealing the worst excesses of Labour and Conservative governments, and giving people their freedom back. We’ll scrap ID cards and remove innocent people from the DNA database. We’ll end control orders, we’ll return pre-charge detention to 14 days, and we’ll protect the Human Rights Act too. And through a written constitution, owned by the British people through a Citizen’s Convention and a referendum, we’ll ensure British freedoms never again become the plaything of government ministers. Governments cannot take the rights they cannot touch.

This election is our chance to create a new politics. It’s our chance to turn the page on decades of centralisation and put power back where it belongs: with the people. If one thing is clear, it’s that they want it, and the old two-party system, where power is hoarded and propped up by vested interests, just won’t do any more. The appetite for change is unprecedented, and it is an opportunity reformers everywhere must seize. The Liberal Democrats have a radical programme that speaks to that call for change. Join us, and together we’ll make it happen.

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