Despite describing his package of reforms as a “power revolution”, at times Clegg seemed to want to play down any hint of “radicalism” in changes that very much “go with the grain of debates” of British democracy, speaking to the Political and Constitutional Reform committee today.
I’m not sure if it this is part of his coalition balancing act, but it’s hard to disagree that these are fairly tame reforms which lack much overall coherence.
Yes, there are some welcome and overdue reforms that inch us closer towards being a modern constitutional democracy, but it’s hardly the most radical thing since 1832, as Clegg has previously described it.
Twice Clegg was offered the chance to say something about the underlying principles behind these reforms and how they fit together as a whole, but he shirked it. Tristram Hunt asked if this was just a “utilitarian tidying up exercise” or something much bolder and a move to a written constitution.
With no mention of a written constitution, Clegg described the reforms as a “mixture of idealism and pragmatism” (he even called them “typically British” at one point). If there is any “overall poetry” to them it is small “l” liberalism which means dispersing power and making it accountable; something both coalition parties can agree on. This felt weak to me.
Later the chair, Labour MP and long-time reformer Graham Allen, asked if we have “executive sovereignty or parliamentary sovereignty” in our existing constitutional arrangements.
I would have expected a deputy PM following in the footsteps of the Chartists to have replied that what he aspires to is popular sovereignty, the sovereignty of We the people. It’s not in the Coalition Agreement of course but he could have said it anyway. In the end he ended up offering some generalities about "executive dominance".
The lack of overall coherence also shows in the fact that some of the planned reforms are clearly in tension and will throw up problems down the line. For example, Clegg couldn’t say whether the number of ministers would be reduced in proportion to the reduction in the number of MPs, though clearly this has a bearing on the government’s stated goal of strengthening Parliament vis-a-vis the executive.
Anyway, here is a summary of what he said:
He confirmed that the referendum would be on the “Australian” form of AV, rather than the Supplementary Vote system as used in London (the superior of the two, as I blogged last week) Unlike Australia, though, it will be an "optional preferential system" where you aren’t required to number all the candidates.
The two biggest virtues of AV, he said, are that it removes the need for tactical voting and gives MPs a 50% mandate from their voters.
He played down the idea that this was a “stepping stone” to more reform saying that he isn’t on a “Maoist” path to PR. (I expect this was for tactical reasons.) He said the campaign shouldn’t be about political parties and politicians but a broader campaign about reforming politics that reaches across society.
Clegg dismissed concerns by Eleanor Laing about the timing of the referendum on the same day as the devolved and local elections. People are perfectly capable of making up their minds on separate issues on the same day, he said, and we can’t try and “micro-manage” the turnout.
He also (rather neatly) fended off Laing’s suggestion that there should be a “threshold” for turnout (something unheard of in this country apart from when opponents of devolution forced it on the government in 1979) by pointing out that only 1 committee member would have been sitting there had there been a 40% endorsement requirement at the general election.
Clegg rejected the idea that the equalization of constituencies was a form of gerrymandering and said it simply isn’t true that voter registration is low only in urban seats which are predominantly Labour.
He said there should be more boundary reviews in future using more up-to-date information on voter registration.
Fixed Term Parliaments
Clegg denied that fixed terms are being rushed through to determine the length of the current parliament and set the next election date at 2015 so as to bind the Lib Dems into a coalition in the event that the referendum on AV is lost.
He said he’s happy to “scotch” rumours Lib Dems would leave the Coalition if AV is lost.
He denied that five years was too long for the terms, arguing that a government needs time to try and implement its programme.
Women and minorities
None of the planned reforms address the issue of poor representation for women and ethnic minorites.
Clegg admitted the current levels of representation in Parliament and his own party poor was very very poor, and said he’d be interested in ideas for improving this.
English votes on English laws
The commission on the West Lothian Question will be set up soon and an announcement on it is forthcoming.
Right of Recall (Update)
I've been asked about the right of recall in the comments. I wrote this in something of a rush and forgot to mention it. There was a lot to cram in in one committee sitting and this was only mentioned briefly towards the end. Clegg said there would be recall in cases in which MPs had been "proven to have done wrong" and rejected it for other cases, for example, if an MP switches party allegiances, which is a scenario in which Nick Bowles said it should be used. Clegg said it was a balance between making MPs accountable in cases of gross misconduct and preventing continual nuisance campaigning against them by other politicians. He claimed to still be open-minded on this though.