Why we need a constitutional convention – and why we have to build it from the bottom

I’ve said before that the political system in this country is broken, and at the risk of sounding like a hipster of reform, it’s good to see that issues of how the British constitution works (or more accurately, doesn’t work) have gone mainstream after the Scottish referendum.

I’ve long thought that there are huge problems with the way this country is run, regardless of who’s actually in power. I was involved in Charter 88 over two decades ago, and while there have been some tentative steps towards reform since then, we’ve never had a truly fundamental examination of the way this country is run. Instead, we’ve had piecemeal reform on top of piecemeal reform, leading to the mess we’ve got now, and all constrained by the central problem of British politics: that power is held to emanate from the centre and is only reluctantly given away to others.

That’s the problem with the discussion on constitutional reform we’re having now: decisions are being made at the centre, ready to be imposed on the rest of us, and after years of inaction we’re being rushed towards half-baked solutions. Yet again, it’s a piecemeal solution to try and solve the problem in the short-term, with no consideration about long-term consequences. The last thing we need is yet another piecemeal solution. Yes, there are promises for further devolution to Scotland that have to be kept and made concrete quickly, but that doesn’t mean everything else has to be yoked to that same timetable.

What we’ve also seen happen when any reform comes up is that it becomes a party-political football, as we’re already seeing with the current debate. Various competing visions of reform get proposed, none can get enough support to get passed through Parliament, and the status quo prevails. Or, as we saw with the AV referendum, one weak proposal does get through, then gets shot down and it’s then proclaimed that no change is necessary.

Any process of constitutional change is inherently political, but that does not mean it has to be run through the current political system. The reason we’ve got to this position is because we’ve got a dysfunctional political system, and expecting that political system to come up with a rational and workable system that fixes itself is perhaps the definition of foolhardy optimism. People are running out of trust in the current system and aren’t expecting it to be able to come up with solutions. That existing bias is going to colour public perception against any new system, even if a miracle occurs and a good reforming idea comes out from the system for once.

That’s why I think we need a constitutional convention to do this process in an entirely different way. We’e had decade after decade of changes being handed down from the top, sure in the knowledge that Westminster can decree the solution to everyone’s problems, and instead we need to let the people solve their own problems this time. A convention – drawing in people from all over the country and all walks of life – gives the chance to do that process differently, and finally to break the tradition that it’s all right for Parliament to set its own (and everyone else’s) rules.

While I think it’s good that political leaders have been calling for a constitutional convention, the process can’t be run by or be part of the current political system. My fear would be that any convention that’s too closely run by the current system won’t be a genuine convention but not much more than a glorified consultation exercise, its entire remit set down by Parliament, and it wouldn’t be free to break out of it. What we need isn’t just tweaking the existing system, but starting anew to build a system from below that keeps power closer to the people, not just deciding that Westminster knows best for everyone. What we especially need is for any new system to have its own force behind it, in the same way as the Scottish Parliament rests on Scotland’s constitutional convention. Any Westminster-created system could face the same fate as other of the changes we’ve seen over the years – capable of being wiped out and rolled back by Parliament at a centralising whim.

The other important lesson of the Scottish Constitutional Convention is that it was created outside of the system, not by it. It wasn’t officially sanctioned by the Government, but drew in support from across society in Scotland. That’s the model we should be adopting for a UK-wide constitutional convention, and instead of waiting for Parliament to give us one, we ned to be getting out there and making one happen.

The question, then, is how do we do that? Do a few of us just get a room, a website, a Twitter feed, a Facebook page and whatever else and commence arguing, hoping others will join in and make the whole thing snowball? Or do we need to build widespread support first, then kick it all off with a storm of involvement and publicity? I don’t know, and I’m not a mood for laying down how everyone else should do something, so what are your thoughts? Which way round does it need to be done, or should we just sit back and trust in Westminster and the system to get it right this time?

Worth Reading 130: Nothing like the sun

Trend piece – ‘Buzzword, buzzword, buzzword. Isn’t the buzzword on your mind now? Perhaps it is on other people’s minds? Read on or you’ll be clueless, dated, and without any friends in the world. Buzzword again!’
The by-election in the House of Lords – Nicholas Whyte collects the statements of the candidates.
How Gary Hart’s Downfall Forever Changed American Politics – Fascinating look back at the political culture of 1987.
The Rules of Enragement – Why some professional troll pieces do better than others.
After the ‘No’: Constitutional Reform must not be by the Elites for the Elites – “The irony of this whole process is that political class have provoked a crisis that exposes the anti-democratic features of the previously dominant British political tradition. Their response is to try to control the process of reform in order to protect their shared vest interest in preserving the Westminster model.”

Worth reading 124: Double each time

Too much democracy? Time for 21st century democracy. – An introduction by Martin Smith and Dave Richards to some of the themes of their book Institutional Crisis in 21st Century Britain, which I’m working through at the moment.
Forget quotas for women MPs – time to limit the number of men – Rainbow Murray flips the debate on representation.
Making policy for the policy invariant – How do you make policy if the people don’t care what the results of that policy are?
Public Statement on the Readmittance of Lord Rennard to the Liberal Democrats – Jennie Rigg says exactly what I would say.
Do political parties make any difference? – Alex Marsh with details of some new academic research that’s relevant to my interests, and also contains some information on the party’s stance on immigration that’ll be of interest to activists.

Politics isn’t broken, but the political system is

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.