Revising our constitution - Even if our parties are the problem we still need PR

John Jackson Stuart Weir
24 March 2010

On Monday evening there was a gathering of a lawyerly London elite with a sprinkling of other political intellectuals to discuss Richard Gordon ‘s new book, Repairing British Politics. This was reviewed in OurKingdom last week by Andrew Blick and also drew a fascinating post from John Jackson. The event may prove important as a watershed in the crisis in British politics and we hope to carry an account of it and various contributions. Here is the short intervention made by John Jackson and a response to it by Stuart Weir.

Had Michael Wills been standing here this evening, he might  have quoted from a paper he wrote in 2006 titled Labour and Democracy: a new agenda. His words then were ‘This essay argues for a programme of reform that may have to be driven not by the political class who are seen as responsible for undermining faith in our constitutional arrangements but by the people themselves who are served by such arrangements.’  That popular drive might, he suggested, result in a one-off, fixed term, directly elected constitutional convention with a remit to assess the state of our constitutional settlement and make proposals for change which would be ratified (or not) by a referendum to be held within three years of the Convention being elected. Quite something!

This suggestion was not novel. In its essence it is the same as that made by John Lilburne (‘Freeborn John’) in 1647 when he published a pamphlet titled, and advocating, An Agreement of the People which would serve as a fundamental law embodying the will of the nation. This notion, which was developed by Lilburne into a proposal for a written constitution created by the people and adopted by a process similar to a popular referendum, was a challenge to the emerging notion of parliamentary sovereignty. Cromwell saw him as politically dangerous and put him in the Tower of London. The fate of Michael Wills was to have his ideas smiled upon and to be sent to serve as a Minister of State responsible for new constitutional thinking in a Department of Justice presided over by Jack Straw.

Lilburne was an egalitarian: and so is Wills. But, as Wills has remarked, the quest for equality has always been shaped politically by the historical circumstances of the time. When Lilburne wrote, in the midst of our civil wars, organised political parties had not yet emerged. Today we have what Richard Gordon has described as a system which consists in essence of a struggle for power between the two main parties. It is Wills’ recognition of the need to address that which makes his approach courageous. Our political parties have stolen the sovereignty which should belong to ‘the people’ and will stop at little in their determination to hold onto it.

If we do have a citizens convention a key matter to consider is whether we want a system which is based fundamentally on voting for a party to advance our interests. It brings with it rational pressure for proportional representation, the party whip, a pragmatic approach to the sanctity of manifesto commitments and the limiting of political involvement by ordinary people to constituency matters. Even when admitting the legitimacy of independent candidates, it removes their political potency. Alternatives should be considered: that is what Lilburne would have said.

Many advocates of a written constitution, and Richard Gordon is one, take it as axiomatic that we have a party-based system and that we need proportional representation to be fair to them, the political parties. If that is accepted as a self-evident truth, it will be necessary to ensure that there is fairness also for us, a sovereign people. A constitution giving political parties a right to proportionality must also define their constitutional obligations. Sir Stephen Sedley, a distinguished judge, postulated whilst delivering the Mishcon lecture in 2007, in any new constitutional settlement the powers to be separated should include more than the traditional trinity and, particularly, should include the political parties. I think he was right.

Stuart Weir

John Jackson’s colloqium contribution above, as with his previous review of Richard Gordon’s proposals for a written constitution, raises two interesting issues within a proposition that I think is quite wrong.

Let me begin with the suggestion that the doctrine of the separation of powers should extend beyond the traditional trinity of executive, legislature and judiciary to embrace a fourth - the political parties. I haven’t actually read Stephen Sedley’s lecture which has inspired John and I will. But I assume Sedley was talking about the way in which the main parties are compensating for the decline of participation in their activities by becoming what political scientists “cartel parties” that collusively take over the resources of the state (at local as well as national level) for their own ends. Indeed, in the UK they dominate the executive and protect their interests from reforms that would make this country more pluralist and democratic (e.g., genuine electoral reform; fixed-term parliaments; etc.).  They have become parasites and no longer properly serve either their role as channels between the people, politics and government or democracy itself.

But I am not sure that we should go on from this important proposition to say, as John seems to, that we should abandon demands for proportional representation and eject political parties as far as we can from elections and go for independent MPs. I know that there is a general feeling that we need to break the phoney “consensus” political manoeuvring of the Labour-Conservative duopoly and to introduce more independent MPs which is reflected in very different ways, for example, by Sir Paul Judge’s experiment with the Jury Team candidates and Anthony Barnett’s “hang ’em” article in the New Statesman.

Well, political parties won’t go away; we need them anyway to give us choices at election time that have some prospect of being acted on. An uncoordinated collection of independents cannot offer any kind of certainty in government; many will have concealed interests of their own. Moreover, PR can offer voters far more choices in political terms than John assumes.  Indeed, the single transferable vote in essence gives people a vote for individuals and not for parties as such; it is just that the parties organise to move in and shift that vote onto a party basis. Very few individual candidates stand for election; thus the final effect is to give people choices within parties as well as between them. Open List PR also gives voters the same opportunity to choose between candidates from the same party.  Both systems tend to create close links between responsive representatives and their electorates, encourage elected members to be more independent and disrupt central party control of their conduct.  But there are downsides too - who for example did not want Democrats in the US to buckle down and vote for health-care reform?

Meanwhile we have two main party elites that are greedy for power, opportunistic, deceitful, driven by image and not substance and a House of Commons that has lost the common touch and the trust of the people.  So let's hope that we can "hang 'em" for now. But let us not abandon the demand for proportional representation that could accomplish in the future much of what John wants now.

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