Whatever happened to reforming the political system?

Stuart Wilks-Heeg

In May 2009, as leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg announced his 100 day action plan ‘to save British democracy’, ‘take back power’ and ‘change politics for good’.  Clegg’s proposals were for an urgent and  far-reaching set of political reforms, including fixed-term Parliaments, a mechanism for voters to be able to recall MPs, a referendum on adopting the ‘AV+’ electoral system, an elected second chamber, and a cap on donations to political parties.

Clegg’s call to arms was prompted by the MPs’ expenses crisis, as a result of which the leaders of all three major parties came to proclaim that British democracy was in crisis and in urgent need of  reform. Against this backdrop, he explained the rationale for swift and radical action in the following terms:

Whatever happened to reforming the political system?

Britain’s democracy is at a turning point. Not in living memory has confidence in politicians, trust in the system, or faith in the government’s capacity to change things been as low as it is today.  Now the true extent of the rot in the system is clear to people, there is huge and growing public demand for change. This has become a once in a generation chance to reform politics completely, putting power back into the hands of the people, where it belongs. The need for constitutional renewal is now recognised across the political spectrum.

Just a year later, following the formation of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, Clegg became Deputy Prime Minister, with particular responsibility for political and constitutional reform. The coalition’s ‘Programme for Government’ contained all the core elements of his ‘100 day action plan’, albeit scheduled over a slightly longer timeframe and with the all important ‘+’ removed from ‘AV+’.

And there was more too. Lib Dem influence was evident in the inclusion of a promise to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists. The coalition partners also agreed on the need to accelerate the introduction of individual elector registration to assist in the prevention of electoral fraud. Meanwhile, the document included a range of reform commitments drawn from the Conservatives’ manifesto. Chief among them were proposals to: reduce the number of MPs and equalise the electorates of parliamentary constituencies; fund 200 all-postal primaries to enable voters to select candidates for parliamentary seats;  hold referendums on introducing elected mayors in the largest English cities; and introduce elected Police and Crime Commissioners.

So, how has the government fared with its reform proposals? Just over two years on from the formation of the coalition, the achievements are thin on the ground. Fixed-term parliaments have been introduced, although there are growing doubts about whether the coalition will survive a full five-year term. The referendums on directly-elected mayors, held in May 2012, produced only one ‘yes’ vote, in Bristol, although Liverpool adopted an elected mayor without a referendum.

Police and Crime Commissioner elections will take place in November, yet popular interest in them looks likely to be minimal (theElectoral Reform Society predicts a 19% turnout). The Bill providing for an accelerated introduction of individual elector registration is making its way through parliament, although concerns about its likely impact on registration levels remain. Legislation has already been passed paving the way for a new set of constituency boundaries and a smaller House of Commons, but its implementation looks to have been jeopardised by the fall-out in the coalition on other policy issues, most notably Lords reform.

And then there are the reform failures. The government’s plans for a mostly-elected chamber to replace the House of Lords were formally withdrawn in August 2012. Yet, most commentators sensed the government’s  plans for Lords reform were doomed from the moment Nick Clegg announced them to the House of Commons in May 2011. Here, the DPM’s timing was deeply unfortunate, with the draft Lords Reform Bill being tabled just days after the electorate had decisively rejected changing the electoral system (following a highly effective ‘No’ campaign, spearheaded by Conservative MPs and supporters, and with significant backing from large sections of the Labour Party).

Months later, in Autumn 2011, proposals to reform party funding and ‘take big money out of politics’ were kicked into the long grass, before the independent committee charged with making recommendations had even delivered its report.  The government did at least get as far as drafting legislation on both recall of MPs and a register of lobbyists, although the select committee reports on these draft Bills were so damning that they look destined never to receive a first reading in the Commons.  The plans for 200 all-postal primaries didn’t even get that far ‒ they were dropped on cost grounds in December 2010.

With the coalition’s agenda for constitutional reform effectively in tatters, a significant but little noticed change took place as part of yesterday’s ministerial reshuffle.  Mark Harper, the Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform moved to the Home Office, becoming Minister for Immigration. As things stand, Harper has not been replaced. The government presumably sees little need to do so. It seems to be signalling that, for this parliament at least, political and constitutional reform has run its course. Entire policy portfolios, as well as individual ministers, can conveniently be eased out via a government reshuffle. The priorities are elsewhere, notably in seeking to restore economic growth.

So where does all this leave the UK political system, and where does it leave Nick Clegg? Clegg’s assertion in May 2009 that ‘confidence in politicians, trust in the system, or faith in the government’s capacity to change things’ remains as true now as it did then, as the recently published Democratic Audit of the United Kingdom makes plain. The Deputy Prime Minister remains ‘Lord President of the Council (with special responsibility for political and constitutional reform), but it seems this role will be restricted to steering the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill through the Commons.

And what of Mr Clegg’s view, three years ago, of British democracy being ‘at a turning point’, requiring swift and decisive reform ? To borrow one of Mrs Thatcher’s soundbites, perhaps he has reluctantly concluded that it ‘is not for turning’.

This article first appeared on the Liverpool Post’s Dale Street Associates Blog on 5 September 2012..



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