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What next for Britain's purple people?

Those who campaigned for a 'Yes' vote in the recent referendum have lost a battle but the larger cause of democracy in Britain still cries out. What should they do?

What next for democratic and electoral reform? Take Back Parliament, the ‘purple people’ who built the ground campaign for the Yes campaign and formed a network of local organisers, are now canvassing the opinions of all who signed up to support them. Their organiser, Andy May, whose cool critical report on the Yes campaign itself has already inspired a wave of online responses and support, is canvassing for views:

The question lies before us – do we give up and let the political establishment win, or like the suffragettes did when they fought to give women the vote, do we pick ourselves up and challenge the status quo again and again until we win.... Some of you I know worked incredibly hard to build groups and get local activity going in your area. Thank you so much for your hard work. The organisations involved are now conducting consultations on what went wrong and I hope you will email us your own thoughts...  we must broaden our view of what reforms could be won whilst we wait for another opportunity on electoral reform.

Two suggestions from volunteers in Bristol and Edinburgh respectively are already on the blog:
The case for Lords reform: - Danny Zinkus
The case for reforming local government elections:  - Anthony Butcher

Of these two initial alternatives, it seems to me that House of Lords reform is the political equivalent of the first world war. It's ironic that just as the very last active combatant is finally buried, Nick Clegg resurrects Westminster's long-running trench warfare between the two coalition parties: not on the fields of France, but on ground smothered in long grass. Reform of the Lords is not a cause that resonates with the public - although burning the place down might. I suspect that after their bloody nose over AV, the Liberal Democrat leadership will be wary of pushing hard on an issue that doesn’t seem very relevant to the crisis that is engulfing the British economy. Anyway, the case is already made; reformers can afford to wait before committing any substantial resources to a campaign.

Proportional representation for local elections is a significant issue and the spread of local ‘on the ground’ campaigners, built on the foundations of the purple people surge, could make a real difference.

But I think that there are two other issues supporters of Take Back Parliament should consider making their main call because both are potentially popular, take us away from entrapment in Westminster protocols and challenge the undemocratic nature of our society. One is about human rights, the other corporate power.

There is now a Commission on a UK Bill of Rights created by the Coalition. The device is the long-grass repository for another issue that divides the two coalition parties.  And it is true that the composition of the Commission is so divided too that it is never going to agree worthwhile conclusions. Yet it is surely worth lobbying it to strengthen the Human Rights Act with new measures – and to signal to Labour and the Greens the direction needed for reform.  Given the government’s major shift from public to private social provision, human rights protection should be extended. We should make the case for the inclusion of economic, social and cultural rights in a Bill of Rights- a change that would bring obvious advantages to marginal and excluded communities and individuals but also, by rounding off HR protection, would make a Bill of Rights directly relevant for all groups in society.  It could for example empower all of us to defend the NHS more effectively from its Conservative ‘lovers’ if we could argue for and obtain a Right to Health. The inclusion of socio-economic rights in a Bill of Rights is popular with a majority of the public, especially in Northern Ireland where the NI Human Rights Commission has found considerable support in both communities.

But reformers must now think outside the box that was set in place by Charter 88 a generation ago.  The democratic cause is fundamental to resisting the devastating changes that this government is pushing through Parliament. Isn’t it about time that democrats saw the defence of the public sphere as such as a democratic imperative? Isn’t it about time  that we combated the dominance of corporate and financial institutions over our executive? They use Downing Street’s dictatorial powers over a weak Parliament and its notorious complicity with ‘global’ interests to impose their agenda. Demands for stronger and transparent regulation of the banks would be a good place to start; so would swelling the protests against tax evasion. If we are going to campaign for democracy in a way that is credible we have to challenge the undemocratic character of corporate capitalism itself.

About the author

Stuart Weir is a political activist. He was formerly editor of the New Statesman when he launched Charter 88, and director of Democratic Audit at Essex University.


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