The political reform movement in the UK is at a bit of a turning point at the moment. Fresh from a flop of a referendum on voting reform, it’s time to regroup and choose the next battle. To be honest, it was always going to be this way. The vote on AV was a win/win for anti-reformers. If it passed, they got away with a voting system that was marginally better, but still hugely in their favour. They’d work with it, and use it as an excuse to avoid the more radical changes. If AV was rejected, they could take it as a political mandate to bury the whole idea of voting reform for another generation. In short, a vote on AV was a politically ingenious and utterly craven offer.
But that’s now water under the bridge. The public wasn’t interested in voting reform, the media backed the wrong side, and the status quo of the political elite prevailed. Although there’s a plucky No to Av, Yes to PR campaign, there’s little point in flogging that dead horse right now. So what’s next for the political reformers, of which I am one?
Well, where to start? Britain has a rich democratic tradition, but it is deeply interwoven with the class system and the arcane traditions of old money and power. The first place to start is the home of that power, the House of Lords. Labour made a start on Lords reform, but swapped hereditary peers for political appointees, which is in my book actually less democratic. Everyone except the Lords agrees that it needs to an elected second chamber. With supporters across all the parties, this is only a matter of time.
A second avenue for reform is the right to recall. My constituency is Luton South, and our last MP was a casualty of the MPs expenses scandal. Shamed and discredited, she simply vanished from view. Letters weren’t answered, drop-ins stopped. The official line was that she was signed off with stress, but a BBC TV sting caught her offering her services to a lobbying group. You can imagine the local front papers, as our AWOL member of parliament appeared hale and hearty on TV, looking for alternative lines of income. The Labour party had already barred her from running, then sacked her, but she was still our MP. There was no way to strip away that position, leaving Luton South unrepresented in parliament for the best part of a year.
The right of recall was in all three main party manifestos, and it has support across the political spectrum. It is constitutional and it has international precedent. (Eighteen US states have it, and it was the recall of Governor Gray Davis in 2003 that saw Arnold Schwarzenegger gain office.) The only things to work out are the reasons for a recall. Would it require proven wrong-doing, or is a failed promise enough? And how would you administer it at the constituency level? Iron out these details and draw up a viable plan, and this is a entry in the history books waiting to be written.
Those are the easy ones. Votes for prisoners is a non-starter right now. Changing parliamentary procedures has met stony silence. A written constitution is unlikely to fire up the public, and lowering the voting age wouldn’t get past the tabloid’s youth phobia. So let’s leave all of those for the time being, and come back to them later.
We’ll get there. Reformers stand in a long line of hard-won but essential steps. From the Anglo-Saxon wittengamot to the Forest Law, to the Magna Carta onwards, greater participation is what we do. None of them have been easy victories, and there are always vested interests. But history is on the side of the reformers.
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