Labour’s political reform proposals: some good ideas, but where’s the detail?

labourreformLabour have launched their plans for political reform (there’s a PDF with more detail here) and at a first look, they’re not that bad. Not perfect, but definitely steps in the right direction and with a bit more coherence to them than the rather random nature of the combined authorities/city regions plans currently being scattered across the country.

The good news is that Labour remain committed to having a Constitutional Convention and are looking at how devolution within England works as a whole, not on a piecemeal basis. There’s no detail on how the convention will be made up, though, and I’d be concerned that it could turn into another top-down attempt at reform where a convention of the great and the good tour the country for some set piece events rather than a proper convention where a wider range of people get to take part.

They also commit to replacing the House of Lords with a Senate, and I’m not going to rehash old arguments about that, but would point out that they only mention removing hereditary peers from the Lords, which makes me wonder if the current appointees will be allowed to remain in place. Like with the constitutional convention, the commitment is good, but the devil is in the detail.

The promise to change the way the Commons work is interesting, especially wanting to “discourage off putting and aggressive behaviour in the Chamber”. However, that is something they’ve got the power to at least partly deliver now. Indeed, if Ed Miliband really wanted to do something dramatic at Prime Minister’s Questions, he would instruct his MPs to sit quietly throughout it, and perhaps do something really transgressive himself like asking David Cameron a question that’s a test of his knowledge, rather than his spinning skills.

Introducing a ‘public evidence stage’ for bills going through the Commons is an interesting idea, but like any public consultation it risks becoming a gimmick and a box-ticking exercise rather than a meaningful input into the process. What measures will be put in place to ensure that the public’s input gets properly considered rather than included in a report that no one pays any real attention to? Also, will the public evidence stage be limited to those who can get to Westminster, or something encouraging wider participation?

We also have a promise that “Labour will reform elections so everyone has their say”, which sounds promising, but is mostly tweaks in administration of elections (votes at 16, changes to registration and trials of online voting) and doesn’t include any commitment to electoral reform. If they truly want a system that gives everyone their say, then they can’t get that with the current electoral system. However, turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, and the many Labour MPs in safe seats would be up in arms if the party started campaigning for them to have a harder time of it.

It’s good to see Labour putting forward proposals on political reform, but as we’ve seen before from Governments of all stripes, good intentions in this field don’t always lead to good outcomes. There’s more detail needed on all the proposals to make them more than just positive soundbites, and they need to be something that makes a real difference, not just a bit of PR that’ll make no real difference to the way things work. Are Labour serious about changing the way power works in this country? These proposals suggest they might be, but they need to demonstrate that commitment not just mouth a few platitudes.

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Cis People Know Best, They Tell Us – How the New Statesman used the death of Leelah Alcorn for a spot of anti-trans concern trolling.
Will the UK voting system survive 2015? – “It’s actually quite clear which way people are going to vote; what is unpredictable is a voting system that is so poorly suited to its purpose that the numbers that it chews out could go anywhere. That this doesn’t lead more people than it does to declare that it is time to pick another system is a sad testament of how badly let down our media and politicians are letting us down.”
Worse than a defeat – James Meek on the many errors that we’re made in Britain’s most recent foray into Afghanistan.
Who bears risk? – “The idea that capitalists are brave entrepreneurs who deserve big rewards for taking risk is just rubbish.”
Are You Really Talking About Rehabilitation For Ched Evans? – What rehabilitation of offenders actually involves, and why Ched Evans’ behaviour doesn’t show he’s rehabilitated at all. (Warning: post discusses rape and related issues)

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Miliband’s speech: does he want real change, or just change that works for Labour?

Labour annual conference 2014During his speech yesterday, Ed Miliband made lots of references to problems with our political system.

she thinks politics is rubbish. And let’s not pretend we don’t hear that a lot on the doorstep…
Our politics doesn’t listen…
And to cap it all, in our politics, it’s a few who have the access while everyone else is locked out…
People think politics is more and more a game and that all we’re in it for is ourselves…
You know people think Westminster politics is out of touch, irrelevant and often disconnected from their lives…
We don’t just need to restore people’s faith in the future with this economic and social plan we need to change the way politics works in this country.
In this day and age, when people are so cynical about politics.

So, Ed thinks there are problems with our politics, that people are cynical about it and it’s all a game. So how did he choose to start his speech?

Friends, it is great to be with you in Manchester. A fantastic city. A city with a great Labour council leading the way. And a city that after this year’s local elections, is not just a Tory-free zone but a Liberal Democrat free zone as well.

He could have used that to praise some of the achievements of Manchester council, to tell us what its done for its residents. In a speech that was going to talk about reform, he could have used it as an example of what councils could achieve now, even when they’re hamstrung by the current system, and imagine what they might do if they were set free. It could have been a great way to illustrate the potential power of devolution and regionalism.

Instead, he chose to appeal to Labour tribalism and make a virtue out of the fact that Manchester is now effectively a one-party state. There are 96 members of Manchester City Council, of which 95 are Labour councillors and the other one is an ex-Labour councillor who now sits as an independent. This is all, of course, thanks to the wonders of our electoral system which means Manchester isn’t a fluke, but a regular occurence. There are councils all over England and Wales where one party has an absurd level of dominance and huge swathes of voters aren’t represented.

Is he against politics as a game, or is he fine with that game as long as Labour are winning? Is he happy for whole swathes of people to be locked out of power and not listened to? Are the Labour Party in this for proper change, or just in it for themselves? In short, does Ed Miliband really want a different kind of politics, or just a slightly tweaked version of our current kind?

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vote for nobody 2Former MP Tony Wright has written an odd piece for the LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog, that tries to disagree with arguments that politics in Britain is broken by seemingly accepting most of the arguments that it is, then claiming that the fact some reforms have happened over the past few years means that things will work out all right. To me, it feels like he’s arguing that it’s not broken because it’s been stuck roughly back together with a flour-and-water paste that he insists is actually superglue.

It’s prompted me to finally sit down and write down a few thoughts I’ve been having on what I think is a slow breakdown of the British political system. I think one mistake Wright makes – and he’s not alone in it, as I’ve written about before – is to confuse politics and the political system, assuming they’re one and the same. It’s a common and understandable solipsism amongst politicians to believe that what we do is the only thing that properly counts as politics, but I think that’s one of the sources of the problem. By believing that politics can only include that which is contained within the existing political system, we assume that the system is capable of containing everything that’s ‘political’. (That may be a tautology, but these are still very rough thoughts)

However, what if the system isn’t capable of doing what’s expected of it? What if the system that was broadly capable of representing political opinion in the past has become completely outdated? Sure, there have been patches and tweaks, such as the ones Wright points to, over the years but these have not addressed the fundamental problems within it. It’s like insisting everything’s fine with your car because you’ve replaced the carburettor, while ignoring that it can’t go faster than 10mph and needs ten litres of fuel to get to end of the road.

I think of this as a slow breakdown because I think it’s the culmination of a long process that began in the 70s (and possibly before) but the system has managed to conceal that – and will likely try to pretend that things can still be fixed with tweaks. The system worked on the principle of there being two main mass-membership parties that sat on either side of the class divide (in line with Pulzer’s 60s observation: “Class is the basis of British politics; all else is embellishment and detail.”) The problem stems from the fact that the pillars that system rested on have crumbled away. To look at some of those factors in brief (it might take a full series of posts to cover it in any reasonable amount of detail, though):

Class is no longer the main driver of British politics. That’s not to say that class isn’t important in Britain but that other forces and other cleavages in society are much more than ’embellishment and detail’. Old cleavages, such as the core-periphery divide, have re-arisen, class itself has evolved into a more complex issue, and new issues have arisen that may divide society but aren’t reflected in the parties.

Political parties have not changed. The usual claim here is that parties have changed, but I think the issue is that they’ve only tweaked and patched, not made a fundamental change. One of the drivers behind mass-membership parties was that they provided social opportunities in a time when there were a lot fewer ways to spend your free time. As those vast networks (that were apolitical a large amount of the time) have withered away, the nature of political parties has not changed in response with some imagining the days of mass membership and participation can be restored. Parties are still being run as though they are still mass parties, when they’ve become more like cadre parties (or to borrow Peter Mair’s term, ‘cartel parties’).

The electoral system doesn’t allow voters to be represented. One of the reasons I think of this as a slow breakdown is that you can see it emerging in the election results of the 70s, when the big parties started watching their share of the vote slip further and further away from 50%, yet not seeing this slippage represented in the share of seats and power won. Moving a bit closer to the present, one reason that the 1997 election is pivotal is that it’s the last time a single party won more votes than there were non-voters. Voters have consistently moved away from the two-party model, but the electoral system continues to prop it up.

There are other issues too – media that prefers personalities to policies, local government that’s trying to deliver for 21st century communities based on 19th century boundaries, the belief that anything that’s worth doing should only be done centrally – but my time today is limited.

What I do want to say in conclusion is that I see and hear people talking about political issues all the time, but because we restrict our definition of politics to ‘that which is represented within the political system’ we tend to not recognise it as such. However, this then turns into disengagement from the system when people don;t see the issues that are important to them being represented or discussed there. I think this tendency has been accelerated by the internet and social networking, but this is just the culmination of a process that started long before home broadband and smartphones. Just tweaking the existing system and claiming it’s completely fixed isn’t enough. We need a system that reaches out to everyone, not one that imagines those it can’t reach have nothing worthwhile to say. To paraphrase Adrian Mitchell, most people ignore most politics, because most politics ignores most people.

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Worth Reading 107: Qualifying benchmarks

Do we want fewer councillors, or should we make better use of those we have? – Andrew Coulson of the Institute for Local Government Studies asks a few questions about just what local government in the UK is for.
Argonauts of the incredibly specific: anthropological field notes on the Liberal Democrat animal – Some interestingly accurate assessments of the party from a departing member.
UKIP: The victory of the ruling class – A typically incisive post from Chris Dillow, pointing out that UKIP are anything but anti-establishment. “The discontent that people might reasonably feel against bankers, capitalists and managerialists has been diverted into a hostility towards immigrants and the three main parties, and to the benefit of yet another party with a managerialist and pro-capitalist ideology.”
This Other England: The Inevitable UKIP Post – “A significant minority of voters who hate everything about this country except the past. It’s a depressing vision – but one that we now have to confront.”
How can we reform local elections? – A proposal from Unlock Democracy to allow councils to determine their own electoral system locally.

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Worth Reading 105: Better ways of making paper

How Liberal Democrat MPs voted against making it far harder to misuse libel – Depressing.
A Senate in the Gun Lobby’s Grip – Gabrielle Giffords in the New York Times
Dead children and monied politicians – and David Simon on how American democracy is failing under the unrestrained influence of lobbyists and money.
Do you live in a Rotten Borough? – New figures from the Electoral Reform Society on how first past the post distorts results in council elections. (And I don’t live in a rotten borough, but it’s within a rotten county)
My So-Called ‘Post-Feminist’ Life in Arts and Letters – Another chronicle of the everyday sexism some of us like to pretend doesn’t exist.

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The website for the yes campaign in the AV referendum is finally up and running, so you can now get along there and sign up to support and help out in whatever way you wish. There’s also the Take Back Parliament campaign – at the moment, I’m not sure how much overlap there is between the two – and there’ll be another meeting of the Essex TBP group at the beginning of October. More details of that soon.

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