Comment: Time for concrete action on electoral reform

Hearing the prime minister on an ippr platform yesterday, speaking with some passion about constitutional reform and the need for a ‘new politics’, took me back to the summer of 2007.

By Lisa Harker

It seems a long time ago now, but when Gordon Brown took over at No 10 such reform was right at the top of his agenda for change. Within a month of taking power, he was writing in the foreword to the green paper Governance of Britain that he wanted to begin the journey towards a new constitutional settlement – a settlement that entrusts parliament and the people with more power”.

Thereafter of course the journey stalled, as other issues – notably the economic crisis – piled up in front of him. All momentum seemed to have been lost until the MPs’ expenses scandal broke, transforming reform of politics into a runaway train onto which all the party leaders were desperately trying to leap. By general consent, Mr Brown was seen to be plodding behind David Cameron and Nick Clegg with his response to the crisis – a sad irony given his apparent early enthusiasm for a new constitutional settlement.

In yesterday’s speech, the prime minister attempted to take a lead again – but his announcements have largely been met with criticism. The main charge is that Mr Brown is being cynical and devious. Far from ‘new politics’ it is the old Gordon, using constitutional reform to ‘wrong foot’ and create ‘dividing lines’ between Labour and its opponents. There is some justice in all these charges. The prime minister would have had much more moral authority in his call for party rivalries to be put aside in pursuit of a new constitutional settlement if he had made it when he was new to office and secure in power. Picking up this agenda again after the expenses scandal and while staring down the barrel of defeat smacks of expediency and tactical manoeuvring. But those of us who want to see progress on political reform can either throw up our hands in despair, or take this opening to force the issue.

So, the announcement of a parliamentary vote on calling a referendum on a new form of voting should be welcomed. It may be a death bed conversion but better that than dying in sin. Those who support electoral reform but would prefer a genuinely proportional system (and ippr is in that camp) should nonetheless seize this opportunity, not least because history shows us that if it is missed it could be years before another one comes along. All reformers should be working together to ensure that the 2011 referendum does get onto the statute book, for whatever the Conservatives think about the circumstances in which it has been proposed, if this parliament votes for it, it must go ahead. The Tories may argue there has been no great public clamour for electoral reform, but scrapping a referendum after it had been called would surely provoke a strong backlash. At the very least, a referendum campaign on a new electoral system would give the public a real say on the future of our political process – they may choose AV or stick with first past the post. The point is they get to decide.

Mr Brown’s ideas on moving to a written constitution are also important. It was perhaps instructive that in his speech, the prime minister challenged the other parties to join a group he is setting up to advance discussions on a new constitutional settlement. It was only in questions from the audience that he spoke of the importance of “throwing it open to the people”. But real popular participation is absolutely integral to forging a new constitutional settlement. If there is to be real change in how this country does politics we need citizens to ‘own’ the reform process – which is why we have long argued for a citizen’s assembly to be convened to come up with changes which would command public trust and enthusiasm. The public should not just be part of this process, they should be central to it.

The reaction to yesterday’s speech shows again how weary and cynical many politicians and commentators have become about the political reform agenda. Their comments illustrate the central problem with today’s politics – and why the public are so turned off by it. It is always about manoeuvring and getting one over on your opponents. Gordon Brown can hardly complain perhaps that his motives are being questioned. But that doesn’t mean that what he says is worthless. We need to see some concrete action and the prime minister has offered an opportunity for that to happen. We would be crazy to let it pass.

Lisa Harker is co-director of the Institute for Public Policy Research

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