Constitutional reform is the train spotting of politics, soliciting a response from anyone buttressed by enthusiasts against a wall at a party somewhere between pity and panic. It was said that Tony Blair, once part way through House of Lords reform in the early 2000s, suddenly acquired the look of a first date forced to sit through a three-hour subtitled German film on hairdressing, eyes like marbles and thumbs rolling over each other in tedium.
Most ordinary folk agree that tinkering with the constitutional machinery is a bit of an obsessive’s game, often undertaken by civil servants bored with their lot and in need of a map to scribble over. Local government in the UK is proof of this, entire counties destroyed and resurrected at the swipe of a sharp HB. Anything more significant – such as House of Lords reform, say – tends to become bogged down with more politics than, for example, carving up counties into manageable chunks, a consequence of Westminster being considered very, very important and provincial towns being regarded as very, very not. It’s little wonder that divvying up England into regional chunks or constantly jiggling about with the councils of Wales or Scotland tends to go along on cycles compared with dealing properly with a national democratic deficit, because the former is seen as necessary maintenance and the latter brain transplant territory.
As you may have noticed, it’s the realm of Westminster and its village which is occupying the time of the Coalition and its occasional bursts into behaviour more suited to a well-heeled couple going through a messy divorce. Not that I’m subscribing to the opinion that the Coalition has as much chance of getting to Christmas as a plump turkey. The issue comes down to what exactly was understood by both Cameron and Clegg as being agreed upon in those long ago hazy days of the post-election glow when the new world of Coalition government looked to the weary nation as so much unparalleled brilliance. When those feelings faded (about a week later?) constitutional reform was refreshingly high on the list of priorities, as though the LibDem influence on Cameron was a revelation on par with that experienced by a bored housewife at an Alpha course.
Sadly like the Alpha course, what burst out in bright lights and speaking in tongues (characterised by crowds of Liberal Democrat activists attempting to explain AV to bemused shoppers in town centres) fizzled out to drab coffee mornings. Whilst Fixed Term Parliaments passed without too much bother, everything else was fought over within an inch of its life – boundary changes and Lords Reform amongst them. The Coalition fought within its each other on the basis that the AV referendum and reducing the size of the Commons were the ends of the same see-saw, whilst Lords Reform was the hastily constructed barbecue at the back of the garden overseen by a slightly drunk father with lighter fluid and an indifference to food hygiene. Whilst Clegg was able to say “We took the voting referendum to the people, and the people didn’t like it”, Cameron could assure his backbenchers that a smaller House of Commons with equal size constituencies would be of benefit to them and the country as a whole. Fewer MPs, less cost, for the spin on one side, safer Tory seats and less in-built Labour bias amongst the urban cities, for the spin on the other. Nothing could be easier to get through.
And yet here we are, with House of Lords reform dead again, Clegg determined to paint his defeat as a matter of Conservative dinosaurs having a whinge about the possible end of the guaranteed retirement home. The Prime Minister, meanwhile, has started to look like a man approaching the Tony Blair stage in is attitude towards reform – the glare in the eyes, the deep sighs, the doodling hangmen on the back of his hand with a pairing knife, that sort of thing. For boundary changes/Commons reduction to go through – and it really should – he needs to force the hand of a Coalition partner fuming and an Opposition party gleaming. Of course Labour were never going to agree that equal sized constituencies are a good thing, shrieking “gerrymandering” all over the place as though they knew what it meant, but the messy way that the Coalition has got here has made Cameron’s work immeasurably harder.
There is a way out of all this, I think, though it means having to say goodbye to both Lords reform and equal sized constituencies. It’s one of those trainspotter obsession things, though, so people of a nervous disposition might want to make themselves a brew.
As we’ve seen in Scotland, local government elected under a system of proportional representation has made little though significant improvements to the democratic deficit there. Now into their third cycle of PR elections, Scotland’s local councils have seen former Labour citadels turned into coalition-led rainbow Town Halls, or at least in the case of Glasgow allowed local newspapers to save on red ink when reporting election results, blobs of Tory blue and and SNP yellow appearing in sporadic splotches. Perhaps more importantly, PR in Scotland gives people far more power at the ballot box – no longer forced to make a compromise themselves, people can vote how they really feel, spreading their vote amongst a number of candidates whilst remaining loyal to their favoured party.
English councils could go the same way if the Clegg and Cameron compromise position is to ditch the two contentious issues for something positioned in the middle. LibDems get PR on a significant level, Conservatives are given a chance for representation in northern cities (and, of course, Labour can make more of a headway into bits of the south which turned away from them post-Blair).
But it’s not just party political reasons for local council PR. As most fule kno, local government is dying on its proverbial, Town Halls robbed of investment over a number of decades, turnout in elections dragging along the bottom of the teen-percentages, drab debates wrung out over a number of successive days in newspaper letter columns. Despite the best efforts of various Commissions, local government is hardly representative of the people its purported to represent, with the scandal of uncontested wards in hundreds of elections every year only making matters worse.
By allowing voters the right to break out of First Past the Post and its horrific damage to democracy, there’s chance for a last minute CPR job to local councils. It’s more than party political concerns about Knowsley or Manchester being “one party states”, council areas in which only one party returns councillors, as Barking and Dagenham did having slain the BNP. The current position means complacency and arrogance sets in amongst councillors who don’t feel the breath of contest on their necks at election time, whose debates only fall amongst themselves. The less chance of an election, or at least an interesting one, the higher chance of discord or apathy. Local government is more than just ballot boxes, of course, but if that element isn’t fixed everything else falls apart.
Lords Reform can wait another few years, having been on the boil for so long anyway. Reducing the size of the Commons is much more important, and should happen if at all possible, though clearly it’s going to be a tight fight between the Whips and their charges.
Compromise then is reform where it’s noticeable – on the streets, at the Town Halls, in cities robbed of vibrant and relevant democratic debate. Allow people to have a real say in who represents them, as Scottish voters currently do, and allow Town Halls to become more reflective of the voters outside. It’s not right that some of our largest towns and cities are effective “one party states”, that some council wards have not seen a contested election in years, or that turnout in FPTP elections can be lower than 15%. A form of PR at council level will help push greater and wider reform. Any other position might make a lot of things much worse, at national level as much as local, and neither Coalition partner wants that. It might mean an early general election, for one thing….