openDemocracyUK

What reforms should we demand out of a hung parliament?

Stuart Weir
20 April 2010

The public mood is for the moment at least so favourably inclined towards a ‘hung’ – i.e., more balanced – Parliament that the ‘Hang ‘em’ campaign feels rather like a small dinghy carried along on the tide. But it is still possible to steer the boat after taking soundings. I think that the recent POWER2010 poll results can assist us in this regard.  The poll shows that nearly two-thirds of respondents believe that “the present system of governing Britain” needs “quite a lot” or “a great deal” of improvement.  This figure sounds impressive, but this rate of dissatisfaction has been broadly the same since the late 1970s and is less than it was in the mid-1990s when it reached 75 per cent prior to Blair’s electoral victory - after which it subsided again. The point being that most of the constitutional remedies that reformers have in mind do not necessarily resonate with the electorate, let alone begin to explain Clegg’s rise in popularity and possible mould-breaking potential.

The striking but hardly unexpected finding of the poll is the overwhelming majority of people want to clean up politics, and their comparative lack of faith in the ability of the parties – Lib Dems. Labour and the Tories alike - to deliver. It is true that the poll question tacks on democratic reform, but it is unlikely that this addition was the motor for the unequivocally high response.

So what course can ‘Hang ‘em’ set?  Obviously, we cannot know whether or not there will be a balanced Parliament or what the disposition of party strengths will be.  But having urged Nick Clegg to be bold, then we too should be bold and prepare for a Lib Dem-Labour coalition, minus Brown and Mandelson.

I want to suggest three tacks.  First, those of us who are involved need to subject the parties’ proposals and actions for a cleaner politics to intense analysis and fashion a gold standard for reform that is most likely to stick. We also need a clear public signal of intent.  Thorough regulation of lobbying is one obvious strand for reform.  But why not make lobbying by elected members for cash or favours a criminal offence, as it commonly is in other democracies?  That would mark a significant break with the 'good chaps' philosophy that so weakens the ruling elite's approach to governance and previous polls have shown that it is likely to be a popular initiative.

Secondly, we need to be precise about the detail of the reform proposals that we want to emerge from a balanced Parliament, beginning with what is on the table and what the Lib Dems can achieve - Brown and co being so disingenuous and partial in their existing reform package. Thus, we should demand that the Lib Dems, if they do well, should have no truck with Brown’s dishonest referendum on electoral reform that denies the people the choice of proportional representation (in my view the key reform that gives the public genuine representation and that should also break our current system of “executive sovereignty” by creating a House of Commons free of single party dominance). We need to specify that elections to a reformed second chamber should preferably be by STV or an open list system that employs a genuinely representative system for allocating seats.

Thirdly, we should demand that all reforms depend upon genuine and deliberative consultation, prior to any referendums, with the aim of holding a constitutional convention on the adoption of a written constitution based on popular, not parliamentary nor executive, sovereignty.

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