Police the police

Agreeing with former Metropolitan Police chief Sir Ian Blair is not easy. It’s not without problems because this is the man who presided over the force at the time of Jean Charles de Menezes’ shooting and whose choice quotes includes referring to Islamic terrorism as the greatest threat to the United Kingdom since ‘the Cold War or the Second World War’. I’d like to say it’s easy to find middle ground with him, but it’s just as easy to compromise with a patch of nettles or quicksand. Or your bank manager a week before payday.

Anyway, yesterday Sir Ian (“Baron Blair of Boughton”, if you please) told SKY News that he’d recommend nobody vote in the forthcoming Police Commissioner elections. He isn’t convinced that one elected person, almost all with party political labels, could possibly manage looking after the police force and crime fighting priorities across a massive geographical area. It’s not as though the politicisation of the police was an unknown concept at his time in office, of course, though the relationship between the Met and the then Labour government wasn’t exactly like that between choice eastern European governments and their police forces. Close, of course, but not that close.

So why do I find myself sort of, kind of, agreeing with him? I’m a constitutional reform sort of guy, I supported the AV referendum and want to see House of Lords reform and local government reform and votes at 16 and all the other things which would drag this country into the 20th century (I don’t hold out hope for us to get into the 21st for a good generation or twelve yet.)  The Police and Crime Commissioner elections are a different kind of reform though, looking tempting on the box whilst only providing fudge chews underneath. And nobody picks fudge chocolates from selection boxes, do they? I want orange and mint and mini Bountys, not fudge. Yet next month we’re all being invited to gorge on fudge, an experiment in constitutional reform which radically alters the relationship between the police and who polices them, with the SV voting system for the love of all things holy, and I can’t swing myself behind them. It’s like finding a private club available for a very specific fetish only to discover the admission price is too high. Or not high enough. Or in a different currency, perhaps. Ach you know what I mean.

Few people out there in real life world dislike the concept of democratising the police-force. Lord knows how the police need to be held accountable, more so than at the moment, and in the context of recent institutional failings the police could do with a stronger, more responsive structure around them. But American style Police Commissioners? Directly elected? And not just that, of course, directly elected and almost exclusively from political parties? In the case of Labour’s candidates, current MPs (Tony Lloyd in Greater Manchester, the sitting MP for Manchester Central, and Alun Michael in South Wales is the current representative for Cardiff South and Penarth) and former Ministers (including Lord Prescott in Humberside.)  In Wales, Alun Michael’s son – his son – is standing as a candidate in North Wales. Now that’s Eastern European.

In Lancashire, the four candidates are all party political, all male, and half of them are sitting County Councillors. One is the current portfolio holder for transport, whose lasting legacy seems to be the removal of bus timetables from the county’s bus-stops. Is this really the best we’ve got? Could this really be the reform we need?

As a democrat, I’d never knowingly stay away from a polling station. I’m no stranger to making difficult decisions in that moment of secrecy – in the absence of a Liberal Democrat candidate at local elections I’ve been known to vote for another party rather than spoil my ballot. Next month will be my toughest challenge. I’ll vote Liberal Democrat but…what for? For whom? For what? Sir Ian has a point – there’s real reform needed at the core of our police force and this has to come from within as much as it comes from beyond. I’m not sure it needs to be done at the ballot box. Dust off Lords Reform, I say, that might be something worth contemplating. That’s how bad it might be….

a third way

Earlier this year I likened the constitutional argument between Nick Clegg (House of Lords) and David Cameron (reducing the size of the House of Commons) to the horror film Saw, insofar as whatever one man achieves the other suffers personal/professional injury. I concluded that it would be better for the Liberal Democrats in the long term to play down House of Lords reform; the amount of damage done to the LibDems if they’re seen as obsessed with the issue will only benefit Cameron and his stirring backbenchers.

(Incidentally, Labour are now against House of Lords reform, which might come as a surprise to people).

Somewhere from the long grass is another constitutional tinkering that could be about to whack the Coalition in the face like Sideshow Bob and garden rakes. That’s the ‘right to recall’ issue, something Cameron said he supported at the height (or depth, depending on how you see it) of the expenses scandal.

Although it has been spoken of as early as April by the Leader of the House, ‘right to recall’ remains the reform that dare not speak its name. MPs were reticent to scrap 50 of their colleagues in the boundary review process so it’s not surprising that handing electors such power is down the list of priorities. It’s not as though other countries which use recall mechanisms make it easy – there’s petition chasing across the US on an almost daily basis as people rush to find millions of valid signatures. In the UK, a smaller population with smaller constituencies makes recall potentially easier to manipulate, handing the profession awkward squads (the Newspaper Comment Section Corps.) the power to play merry Hell for the sake of it.

“We should have the power to sack MPs!” is a populist move, which might persuade people to rush for a pen at the earliest opportunity. Remember, though, that the e-petition to bring back the death penalty barely registered much support at all, which dampens fears that the green ink parade will be orchestrated to chuck out any Cabinet Minister which looks at them funny.

If the push-me/pull-me games over House of Lords reform verses Reduction in the Number of MPs ends up with both defeated, ‘right to recall’ could be the compromise choice. It may have something of the gesture about it, though it’s easier to trail at either devolved assembly before being introduced at Westminster, and should see a genuine change in the attitude of MPs who think the expenses farrago has died down. Forcing a by-election in cases of criminal behaviour makes as much sense to me as chucking out of parliament lawmakers whose seat exists by virtue of a great-great-great grandfather getting into an emotional clinch with a washer-woman. General elections can be easily ‘ducked’ by MPs who don’t fancy having to face the music (as we saw with record numbers of retirements prior to 2010). The ‘right to recall’ would be almost unavoidable.

Constitutional reform is long overdue in the UK, in part because the mere mention of the administrative wheels behind the whole charade tend to make people glaze over (not just their eyes). The lack of will by any government, of any colour, is in stark contrast to the manner with which this Coalition has tried to get into the workings with spanners and hammers aloft (“spanners” is not a derogatory term meaning ‘Clegg and Cameron’, honest). That Labour, of all parties, stands against constitutional reform is jaw-slapping. That a party ‘of the workers’ chose to stand against modernising the voting system (which would give members of the public more say in who represented them in parliament, one of Labour’s founding principles) staggers me still today. The AV referendum would have been won had Labour chose to kick FPTP rather than Nick Clegg.

Lords reform may well be defeated by a bizarre combination of the now anti-reform Labour Party and backbench Conservative dinosaurs, in much the same way that reducing the size of the Commons was almost chucked out by the same tag-team of old school grumps and new breed professional politicians in Burton’s suits and safe northern constituencies. I warned the LibDems against looking like obsessives over issues like this, just in case the passion overflows. No party would lose face if, as an alternative to the bickering over the most serious reforms to our country’s governance, they helped ‘right to recall’ onto the statute books. Cameron once called for all parties to follow him in supporting the change: I wonder if he’ll now use this as his price for peace across the Cabinet table.

see-saw

In the “Saw” series of horror films, two men are often pitched against each other in contrived set-ups in which one must achieve a certain target to guarantee freedom, often causing the other to lose a limb or his mind or have his jaw knocked into the next post-code. In any case, “Saw” is popcorn nothingness with a central premise which is supposed to remind its audience that in extreme circumstances, people would do anything to survive.

Armed with a hacksaw and good intentions, if the media reports are accurate, is Liberal Democrat President Tim Farron, ready to sabotage, blackmail, stride into the Coalition agreement with an angrier voice than usual.

Now I like Farron, not least because he is Prestonian, and at the next leadership election he would get my first preference. On House of Lords reform, however, there’s the scent of a situation which could be a lot worse than he, or any of us, would really like to walk into. The saying “be careful what you wish for” is overused and trite but it still holds true. If a situation looks contrived, it usually is. When a good man goes to war, if I can coin a phrase, he rarely comes out unscathed.

Of all the issues which usually cause wobbles within governments, constitutional reform is somewhere near the bottom of the list. In fact some lists have it chopped off the bottom through bad photocopying and nobody notices. Education, employment, financial fiddling – these are the usual causes of turmoil around the Cabinet table, not taking hammers to the machinery of governance. Only with the  LibDems in Government would it become likely that electoral administration becomes headline news.

In an ideal world, Nick Clegg and the LibDems would achieve their constitutional reforming aims: give the United Kingdom a fairer, representative voting system; reform the House of Lords; reduce the size and cost of Parliament; reform local government including proportional representation at council level: and so on, and on, and on. The reality of the Coalition government means this wish list has to be put into the great big compromise machine, and “getting what we wish for” becomes laced with more danger. Clegg and Farron must know that the long term health of the Coalition is far more important than the rush to reform the second chamber? We should be known as the Party which helped improve the economy and take millions out of income tax, not the Party which broke off the Coalition agreement over constitutional tinkering.

Were I within the Coalition heart right now, I’d accept that David Cameron’s battle with his backbenchers is not a fight worth joining. Getting a smaller House of Commons with the associated boundary changes is a great achievement. House of Lords reform is over 100 years old, we can wait. Indeed, we can go into the next election saying “We wanted reform and still do, only the dinosaurs within the Tories and the current anti-everything Labour Party stopped us. The big two want things to stay the same, only we press on for greater reform.”

Make no mistake about this. The House of Lords needs reform. It is obscene that a developed, 21st century democracy has an appointed second chamber filled with people whose great-great-somebody won a title through a relationship with a well connected chambermaid. There is no place for a second chamber in which Bishops can rule on matters of law. But Coalition government means difficult decisions must be made. Compromise must be sought – and achieved.

We need to allow the Commons reduction to go through, paying the price of Lords reform. Because Labour won’t help us – it was solely the fault of the anti-everything Labour party that AV was defeated. Only the LibDems will continue to fight for constitutional reform, meaningful and relevant. But we need to realise what cannot be achieved in this parliament. Tim Farron is a fine man and one of our best parliamentarians. He would be best advised to stop the blackmail attempts for the good of the Coalition, our Party, and the country.