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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We all remember some of the shameful things that happened in Parliament during the last Labour government. Chief among them, of course, were the repeated times when the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats used their majority of votes their to repeatedly block any attempts to discuss House of Lords reform. Then, when it managed to get through, they repeatedly voted down Labour’s proposals for a 100% elected second chamber and referendum on the issue. They certainly weren’t a government who got extremely half-hearted about Lords reform after removing most of the hereditary peers, and allowed whatever meagre Parliamentary time they allocated to discussing it to end in inconclusive votes that achieved nothing beyond kicking it into the long grass for years.

I don’t recall any of that happening, but it must have done for this to make any sense. Otherwise, it’d just be someone blocking the chance to have any further reform of the Lords in order to play political games.

Oh, and the whole ‘we should be concentrating on the economy and not doing anything else in Parliament’ argument? Take a look at this list of bills announced in the 2009 Queen’s Speech when the economy wasn’t doing too well either. Oddly, that seems to have a number of bills included in it (including ones on constitutional reform and Lords reform) that are nothing to do with the economy. Perhaps the Labour Party of 2009 – unlike their modern-day counterparts – were able to understand that it’s possible for a Government and a Parliament to do more than one thing at once.

What might have happened if someone had told William Beveridge there was no time for him to waste writing reports on social insurance while there was a war on?

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Remember when the Tories appeared to be in favour of reforming the House of Lords, and even electing it? Well, looks like that’s been sacrificed on the altar of their all-consuming hatred of Peter Mandelson.

Yes, the very idea that Mandelson might be allowed to – like almost anyone else in a free society – resign from one position to seek another is just so anathema to the Tories that they’ll attempt to stop it from happening. The fact that this just prolongs the absurdity of the existence of the House of Lords (where, let’s remember, Jeffrey Archer is still entitled to vote on the laws of the country) is neither here nor there – no principle is too high to be jettisoned in the desire to stop the people being able to vote on whether Peter Mandelson should be in Parliament.

I’m no fan of Mandelson, and I’m sure a Labour Party led by him would go down to defeat just as heavily as one led by Gordon Brown, but next time you hear Tories complaining about the ‘unelected’ Mandelson, do remind them that it’s in their power to remedy that situation.

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